(Just Like) Starting Over

by Jonathan Bernstein

I think, looking back on the health care reform battle the biggest puzzle I'm going to have is the surprising failure of the Republicans to focus more attention on what I always thought was its most vulnerable point: the individual mandate.

Now, of course, conservatives have attacked the individual mandate (to the point of casting votes on the Senate floor calling the mandate unconstitutional), but I think it's pretty clear that it was never their main avenue of attack.  Back in the summer it was "government takeover," complaints that Members of the House had not actually read the bill, and, of course, death panels.  In the fall, more government takeover.  In the Senate debate, medicare cuts were really the main focus of the GOP attack.  Oh, and the size of the bill.  Since then, it's been a mix of the importance of following the electoral mandate of the people of Massachusetts, the tyranny of using reconciliation, and finally, at the summit, the importance of starting from scratch with a clean slate, or piece of paper, or Etch a Sketch.

Consider "starting over."  Republicans have a whole day of maximum media attention, and that's the best they could come up with?

I'm sure that starting over polled well (as I'm sure Democratic talking points did -- I'm certainly not going to claim that only one side uses focus groups and polls to test their messages).  But it's not exactly a long-term argument, is it?  I mean, put aside the obvious fact (certainly obvious to every reporter who covered the summit) that the Republicans didn't actually want to start over -- they wanted to kill the bill.  The real point, here, is that however "start over" tests, it's not actually an argument against health care reform.  Neither is the size of the bill.  Or whether Members have read it.  Or reconciliation (and, yes, it is possible that extremely rare and disruptive parliamentary procedures might have some effect on public opinion polls, but reconciliation is neither).  And of course "start over" is immediately irrelevant if and when the bill passes, and to my ears at least it's not much of an argument for anyone to oppose the bill.  Look at it this way: for marginal Democrats in the House, does actually starting over and spending a few more months on this issue sound appealing?  Hard to believe.

Had Republicans managed to demonize the individual mandate, which I would have thought -- in fact, as Barack Obama apparently thought in 2008 -- was fairly easy to do, then it would have caused plenty of trouble for the Dems.  The policy people all make the point that the individual mandate is interlocked with so many other pieces of the overall reform effort that it would have been very difficult to give that up.  I can certainly picture wavering Congressional Dems begging, in that scenario, for relief from having to vote for the dreaded mandate.  If you do that, however, can you really have a functioning policy?

In other words, I think the Republicans are doing a lot worse in the spin war on health care reform than they could be doing.  Now, I should emphasize that the spin war is a lot less important than other parts of the battle, but it's still interesting in itself, and of course in a very close contest, whether in elections or legislating, any small thing could make the difference (oh, and I should add that while I do think it's very likely that health care is going to pass, it certainly is possible that it will break down at the end).  What I don't know is why.  On the one hand, the whole thing sounds to me like Frank Luntz, who ( I guess I should add an in my opinion) has led Republicans down the wrong track before by emphasizing words that sound good, rather than policies that voters actually like.  On the other hand, it also sounds like the effects of a party that is so good at spreading their talking points to like-minded voters that they've become lazy about the content of those talking points.  I don't know -- but it's yet another thing that I hope is explained in the terrific behind-the-scenes books that I'm confident will be produced by some of the reporters who have been covering this fight.