For Republicans, August was a dream — Obamacare sinking by the day, angry protestors confronting befuddled or insulting Democratic politicians, Obama’s poll numbers sagging. But the calendar inevitably turns, and it’s on to September.
This week, the president’s team signaled that it might finally be ready to shift away from Obamacare’s current malignant incarnation. Maybe. They have mentioned no details, but David Axelrod and others are whispering to the media that on September 9, when President Obama makes his next major health-care policy speech to a joint session of Congress, things will start to move toward the center. We’ve heard this tune before.
Just what do Republicans make of this latest twist in Obama’s message? Their strategists are heartened by the course of the debate so far but doubt Obama will go far enough in jettisoning his current approach. Nonetheless, they still see potential peril.
“Axelrod’s not stupid,” a former GOP official who wished not to be identified tells NRO. “They’re recalibrating to salvage a political win. The White House misjudged their audience. They campaigned to the public for the last six months when their audience is Congress. It’s a classic mistake of a new White House. Reagan didn’t make that mistake on tax cuts, his signature issue early in his first term. As a popular new president he spent his points charming Tip O’Neill and personally working the moderate Democrats and built a majority to pass his top priority. Reagan’s people got it. Obama’s people are in campaign mode. They need to learn it’s not about the TelePrompTer, it is about the one-on-one with members of Congress.”
Obama really has “no choice but to shift strategies,” says Mary Matalin, a longtime Republican strategist. The hints from Obama advisers in recent days that the administration will drop the public option was “a political event more revelatory than definitional.”
“What it revealed will harden into the definition of him, unless he makes a real, comprehensive, and sustained strategic and tactical overhaul,” says Matalin. “The health-care debate revealed: He is not only not infallible, he is — they all are — personally hubristic and politically feckless. The notion that his personal popularity would convert the country to statism and irrational redistribution schemes was patently incompetent, shockingly shallow from the outset. It revealed what conservatives have known and expressed since 2006: The repudiation of Republicans was neither a repudiation of conservatism nor an embrace of liberalism.”
David Winston, a Republican pollster, agrees. He says that Obama “has to do a kind of reset on health care and figure out if he can regain the initiative on the policy debate, since he clearly lost the month of August.” Winston cautions, however, that Obama has bigger problems than his message. “One of the difficult stress points of a majority coalition is how you keep your base and the people beyond the base together to sustain that coalition. Health care is the first clear example where the two have divergent views.”
If Republicans are heartened by Obama’s summer stumble, that doesn’t mean they should relax. Republicans, says Winston, should work to create a “positive policy choice,” such as insurance portability, since Obama has given them an opening to put something of substance forward. Winston adds that the GOP should remember, when thinking about their policy, that “seniors and married women with children are the key drivers in attitudes towards health care.”
Another Republican strategist who knows something about framing public policy is Frank Luntz. He predicts Republicans will have ample opportunity this fall to shape the health-care debate — if they’re smart.
“First, Republicans should use their doctors’caucus to respond to Obama’s speech next week,” says Luntz. The doctors in the Republican caucus, he says, such as Rep. Tom Price of Georgia “should be the people to respond, because Americans trust doctors more than politicians when it comes to health care. Let them wear the hat of a doctor rather than an elected official, since they know more about health care than anyone else.”
“Second,” says Luntz, “it is time in their town-hall meetings for Republicans to be conveners rather than participants. I think it is essential that GOP town halls be less advocates of a particular policy and more informational about the consequences of Obamacare. We all know what the Democrats in Congress are promising. What we don’t know, what the public doesn’t know, are the consequences of those promises.” Luntz adds that the GOP has got to “stop with the cute, playful advertising and get down to specifics. Some organizations are, frankly, making a mockery of this debate. Health care is serious and so should the GOP’s advertising.”
Ed Gillespie, former counselor to Pres. George W. Bush and chairman of the Republican National Committee, tells NRO that Republicans “ought to narrow their focus to health-care reform for those who are involuntarily uninsured.” A strong policy rebuttal, says Gillespie, could be the GOP’s best autumn asset.
Still, says Gillespie, “the pressure is not on Republicans.” Obama, he says, will have to face a barrage of criticism on a host of issues beyond health care. “It’s the stimulus that was rushed through, the sloppy spending, and the Cash for Clunkers program that people saw as ineffective spending. Health care reinforced that notion. The problem for the president is that the facts got out. There is no risk for Republicans in opposing the Democrats’ health-care plans as they are. If Obama moves, there is risk, however, for Republicans to look too much like they oppose reform. Americans have real concerns about rising costs.” Obama “has a major decision to make here,” he adds. “If he jams his plan through with only Democrat votes in the House and Senate — bowing to his left by keeping the public option in — that’s a path fraught with peril for him and it’s possible that it ends in spectacular failure. It might cost him seats in next year’s midterms and he will destroy the patina of post-partisanship that is so critical to his personal approval ratings.”
Tony Fratto, a former deputy press secretary to Pres. George W. Bush, agrees: “The public option has become a lightning rod.” Obama’s moving away from it, “from a strategic standpoint, is smart — the map on this has been complicated for them for a long time.”
Obama, in short, gets a prime-time address — but he still may not have a winning hand.
— Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.