GOP is losing the health care debate

Republicans have lost the health care debate, but they don’t appear to know it.  They’ve lost the debate not because the public loves the Affordable Care Act, or because the law has proved to be a policy panacea (though it is working basically as planned). The reason Republicans have lost the debate is because they now occupy an extreme and untenable position when it comes to addressing the public’s very real need for health care policy solutions. As a result, Democrats now have the political high ground – the center.

How can this be when recent polling by the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation shows only 37 percent of people have a favorable view of the law, which was passed almost exclusively by Democrats, and 42 percent have an unfavorable view of it? Why aren’t Republicans winning the argument to defund the law? Because they are ignoring other data, using this one statistic as the basis for all-out attack.

The public’s view of health care is much more well-rounded.  Reading further, the same survey shows that a majority of Americans (57 percent) say they disapprove of cutting off funding as a way to stop the law from being implemented. Even among Republicans, 34 percent disapprove of defunding the ACA.

Why do they disapprove? Well, 69 percent say that using the budget process to stop a law is not the way our government should work. 56 percent say that defunding the law will cripple it, which won’t be good for its supporters or opponents (in other words, they want to give the law a chance). And 49 percent of Americans think the law will be a good thing for the country and should be implemented as written – that’s 12 percent higher than the group that already has a favorable view of the law.

Let’s look at how this plays out in a political setting. Republicans will want to attack Democrat incumbents for their support of the law, or for their opposition to repeal or defund it. But whether they voted for the law or not, Democrats now say, “Let’s not go back to the bad old days where HMOs had consumers and patients at their mercy.  Obamacare may have flaws, but let’s work together to fix them.” Pretty sensible, no? Already, that sentiment is essentially the Democratic position, from the president on down.

By pushing for defunding, Republicans are snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. A much better course of action would be to identify unworkable parts of the law and offer proposals to fix them.  Republican members who did this would either be joined by Democrats and enjoy bipartisan support, or force Democrats to defend against improvements that the public knows are needed. In other words, Republicans could retake the center and force Democrats to the extreme. Alas, they’re not doing that.

Political heavyweights on both sides of the aisle have made note of this trap and advised House Republicans to avoid it. Newt Gingrich recently said that Republicans have “zero answer” to the question of what should replace Obamacare.  Bill Clinton publicly advised the Republican Party to get away from focusing on repealing the law and get started on offering constructive improvements.

At some point, the Republican Party needs to get past its fixation on the policy prescriptions favored by the very small slice of the electorate known as the Republican base.  Until they do, their policy cupboard will be bare, and prospects for expanding their appeal beyond their base will remain grim.

When I worked for Rahm Emanuel, then chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, he used to say that Democrats were winning when Republicans were forced to choose between a centrist position and Rush Limbaugh’s position. For the last two years, they’ve sided with Limbaugh again and again.  It’s not a formula for broad-based political success.

Papa was special assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs in the Obama White House. He also worked as a top communications and political strategist on Capitol Hill for many years. He currently runs Global Strategy Group’s (GSG) Washington, D.C. office.

More in Presidential Campaign

Debates should address issues primary voters care about

Read more »