Mon 23 Feb, 2009 08:46 am
Forget change: GOP eyes retro strategy
By: Jeanne Cummings - Salon
February 23, 2009
Republicans are hatching a political comeback by dusting off a strategic playbook written nearly two decades ago.
Its themes: Unite against Democrats’ economic policy, block and counter health care reform and tar them with spending scandals.
Those represent the political trifecta that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich bet on in 1994 to produce a historic Republican takeover of Congress.
Now, some Republicans believe President Barack Obama’s one-two push on the economy and health care reform is setting the stage for a new round of significant gains, if not a total takeover.
“There are two models that Republicans are looking at,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.
“One is 1990, [President George H.W.] Bush gets together with the Democrats at Andrews Air Force Base, raises taxes and loses the next election,” he explained. “The other is 1993, Democrats have a series of proposals to spend and tax. Republicans vote no and regain the House and Senate.”
With passage of the $787 billion economic stimulus behind him, the new president is now turning to health care, expected to be a primary topic at Monday’s Fiscal Responsibility Summit at the White House.
Republican leaders, including House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio, plan to attend. But as the stimulus debate earlier this month showed, a dialogue today doesn’t rule out an onslaught of diatribes later on the House and Senate floors.
That recent history is likely to put the Obama team on guard, but the road ahead for Republicans is tricky, as well.
It’s not 1994 anymore
For one thing, Obama isn’t Clinton.
President Bill Clinton never won a popular majority in his two elections. Obama did. His vote margin exceeded 9 million votes, the largest ever for a nonincumbent presidential contender " including Ronald Reagan’s 1980 win over President Jimmy Carter.
And another thing: Republicans aren’t in the ascendancy as they were in 1994. After two victorious election cycles, the Democrats have puréed the Republicans into their purest conservative caucus.
In a way, that made it easier for Republicans to vote against Obama’s stimulus plan. But a repeat performance on health care could be more complicated.
Health care is a personal issue for many voters. Reforming the current system ranks as the public’s third top priority, according to a January Kaiser Family Foundation poll. And many of those advocates aren’t traditional Democratic constituents.
“We are in a different game, and they are playing by the old rules,” said Stan Greenberg, a Democratic political strategist and former Clinton adviser.
Ordinary families and businesses, big and small, are struggling with health care’s rising costs. Insurance companies and drug makers that stood by Republicans in the last debate are now cozying up to the Obama team, hoping to influence a final reform bill.
“He’s got a lot more running room,” said Billy Tauzin, the former Republican congressman from Louisiana who heads PhRMA, the drug company’s trade group in Washington.
“There is a lot more urgency on the issue, and there is a lot more common ground,” he added. “There are extraordinary coalitions of people who would not sit down at a table with each other in 1992 that are now working on the issue today.”
Lots of lessons were learned
Finally, Republicans aren’t the only ones with a pocketful of lessons learned from the epic battles in 1993-94.
Unlike the Clinton plan, Obama’s reform effort builds on employer-based health insurance rather than replacing it, undercutting Republican efforts to label it as a big-government program.
The Obama team is also approaching the legislative process much differently.
In 1993, the Clinton plan was crafted inside the White House. Today, Senate Democrats are writing the package.
Obama is also scattering portions of his reform agenda into several legislative vehicles, which means some could prevail while others might falter.
The president already can claim one key victory: nearly $20 billion set aside in the stimulus bill to help doctors and hospitals convert paper medical records to electronic ones.
The transition is critical to achieving Obama’s goal of decreasing medical costs, since electronic records could reduce duplication of medical tests and other treatments.
The Obama team will also salt significant reforms into its first budget proposal, scheduled to be released on Thursday.
Among them are a series of carrots and sticks intended to drive down the number of repeat hospital admissions of Medicare patients.
Another proposal would eliminate the current fee-for-service formula and give hospitals a single payment that would cover a variety of treatments. The goal: reducing unnecessary tests or services, according to a source familiar with the White House deliberations.
Such changes are sure to set off intense lobbying efforts by those who win or lose in the pay formula.
But by moving them into the budget bill, Obama robs Republicans of the chance to filibuster them. He just needs a simple majority in the Senate " something Clinton couldn’t count on.
But the more things change...
The Republicans’ best hope for a political recovery may actually have little to do with what they do. Rather, it may hinge more on whether the Democrats just keep being Democrats.
“They will start with a very left wing bill because they can’t help themselves,” predicted Gingrich.
And he has reasons to hope. The primary Democratic reform authors " Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) " already are drafting a reform proposal that goes beyond what Obama promised on the campaign trail.
The two senators are expected to press for a mandate that every adult obtain health insurance. Obama expressly campaigned against such a mandate " and took a lot of heat for that from Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries.
His campaign called for mandatory coverage of children. Adults would be herded toward insurance through a series of financial incentives.
In addition, congressional Democrats are conducting their negotiations in stark contrast to the way Obama promised he’d conduct them.
They’re meeting secretly on Capitol Hill with industry representatives, and Republicans aren’t in the room; Obama promised open and bipartisan debate with television cameras in the room.
The Senate is only the start of the process. Republicans are banking on the more liberal House to push the health care legislation even further from the center, making it unpalatable to moderate Democrats as well as Republicans.
As he did years ago, Gingrich is urging his old colleagues to “come up with a positive solution that is inclusive of everybody and that is capable of being implemented and to try to do it in a bipartisan way.”
In the House, Boehner recently appointed a GOP health care task force to begin crafting a response to the Obama plan.
Republicans are also relying on another set of Democrats to be themselves and, in the process, grease the way to a political comeback for the GOP: big-city mayors.
Several conservative groups plan to track the stimulus cash as it makes its way to the streets and playgrounds and sewer projects that are supposed to generate jobs.
“What the Democrats have done is set up a minefield that they aren’t in charge of,” Norquist said. “For two years, they will have to wander in it and wonder if they are going to step on some boondoggle, some corrupt contract.”
Obama seemed mindful of that risk in a White House meeting Friday, when he lectured mayors about watching their spending.
“What I need from all of you is unprecedented responsibility and accountability on all of our parts,” the president said. “The American people are watching.”
So are their political rivals, he might have added.
This ignores the fact
that the reason that the Democrats were divested of control
of both houses of Congress was citizens' outrage over the semi-automatic gun ban.