GOP needs tact, new tack

OK, GOP, take a load off and stand down.

Republicans have spent a year blocking healthcare reform with everything they’ve got. It united them, brought independent voters President Barack Obama won back under their tent, gave them a narrative about how Democrats grow government, deficits and debt, and it will help them win seats in the midterm elections. But the vote is over, the battle lost, and Republicans must hit the pause button or risk reversing their gains.

With the passage of sweeping, historic healthcare reform legislation, the divided, depleted Democratic Party is, at least for now, united and relieved. It should be. After a year of defending an ugly process, the party can now defend appealing consumer protections that kick in this year.

Yet the enthusiasm gap remains: How do Democrats try and match the anger directed at them in this fall’s election? The liberals who had high hopes for Obama’s transformation agenda and his plans to change the way business is done in Washington left the healthcare table without a public option. Will they still push for contentious votes on immigration reform and climate change legislation this year, knowing the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate will likely shrink next year? Conservative Democrats, exhausted from the toxic healthcare debate and awaiting the worst election season of their careers, want a return to small ball and a singular focus on the economy. They have taken their last historic vote and are ready to sweep Obama’s big agenda under the rug for good.

Dueling polls are suddenly muddying the political waters on healthcare. The White House was giddy to be able to tout a Gallup uptick in healthcare approval just hours after the bill was signed into law. Republicans continue to e-mail other polls showing majority disapproval. Democrats are hoping that, after a year of failing to effectively sell healthcare reform to the public, they can manage to make it popular before the midterm elections. Though healthcare reform could poll well in a few years, November seems a heavy lift.

Having won public sentiment in the yearlong debate, Republicans are now scrambling for a new message, bickering over whether or not to promise “repeal” or “repeal and replace.” Why lie to voters about repeal? Obama would veto any attempt to do so, which means repeal would require Republicans to return to complete control of Washington. And why return to GOP cannibalism?

Meanwhile, Republicans are also fending off questions about healthcare opponents vandalizing members’ offices and protesters who spat and hurled racial and anti-homosexual epithets at members of Congress. Then there’s Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas), who joined Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) in the House Chamber Decorum Deterioration Hall of Fame, becoming famous overnight for shouting “baby killer” on the floor Sunday as loudly as Wilson screamed, “You lie!” there during a speech by Obama.

Republicans need to change the subject from repeal and the renegades who support them to the actual truth of the healthcare reform law. There is plenty of material — from the federal intrusion the law brings to the marketplace, to the effects on Medicare, to the ramifications of a mandate, to the fact that it turns out children aren’t as fully protected as Obama has said they were, to the question of whether future Congresses will punt on imposing the taxes that have been put off to “pay” for reform.

The independent, “persuadable” voters Republicans have won back during the debate are wary of partisanship and politics. To keep them, Republicans should stop talking about polls, avoid gimmicks and stick with substance. This last year proved that it works.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.