GOP missing the message

Watching the Republicans tear into the Obama healthcare plan this week leaves me wondering if their leadership held a different election from the one I voted in a dozen weeks ago. At the very least, they heard a different message from voters. The GOP leadership seems to believe that its mandate from voters is to repeal healthcare reform and, oddly enough, to cut Social Security to help close the deficit.

Republicans, especially the new crowd swept in by the Tea Party, argue that after promising voters they’d “repeal ObamaCare,” they have an obligation to do just that. Chances are they’ll have won that vote in the House by the time you read this. But will anyone really care? 

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Voters don’t have healthcare repeal at the top of their agenda — they didn’t back in November and they don’t now. The numbers from different pollsters vary, but all show that repeal/replacement of the president’s healthcare reforms is not that important. Voters are concerned with the state of our economy. They want the Congress to focus on jobs, not retooling healthcare. 

The Tea Party’s favorite issues — cutting spending and trimming the size of government — take a backseat to getting the economy moving again. Voters are more likely to favor a job stimulus plan with increased government spending than cuts to Social Security, for example. A new Democracy Corps poll completed by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner late last week ranks protecting Social Security and Medicare as the second-most-important voter priority. (Yes, Greenberg et al are left-of-center pollsters, and their client is likeminded. Still, the research is highly credible. Greenberg is an honest and competent pollster.) 

So if voters rank protecting Social Security from cuts as their No. 2 issue, what are Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and John Boehner (R-Ohio) thinking? I must assume they are more concerned with protecting their right flank than with restoring the American economy. The healthcare bill they will symbolically repeal in the House will actually mean job cuts — just the opposite of what voters want right now. Trimming the deficit by cutting benefits and raising the retirement age for Social Security in the future are both opposed by sizable majorities of American voters. The voters have no interest in such cuts, and the Republicans didn’t receive a mandate to make them. Americans want a government focused on reviving the economy and creating jobs — and they expect the Congress and the White House to work together to do just that.

I suppose one could argue that tossing a bone to the Tea Party by repealing healthcare is a clever political move. After all, the bill will never pass the Senate and the president would certainly veto it if it did. The stage play in the House this week will pacify the right, that reasoning would go, show that the leadership is “keeping its promise” and leave more than a year to actually do something about the economy. The problem with that logic is that it gives the Democrats an opportunity to redefine the president’s healthcare plan. The White House and the Democratic leadership muffed that opportunity the first time around. Boehner and Cantor are giving them a do-over. If the Democrats are smart, they will make the most of this opportunity and begin to recast their image in the run-up to the 2012 election. Democrats can cast Republicans as doing the will of health insurers while they are fighting pre-existing conditions and dropped coverage and promoting access to care for all Americans. That is not a bad position to be in as the country takes on a more moderate tone after the 2010 election. 

It is important to remember that the electorate has moved on since the November election. Opposition to the policies of the president has softened significantly — a trend that was apparent before Obama’s speech in Tucson, Ariz. As elements of the healthcare law are implemented, voters are growing more comfortable with Obama’s plan. But most importantly, a large majority of Americans have had their fill of the healthcare debate. “Been there. Done that.” Now let’s get serious about what the nation really needs: jobs.

The message voters were trying to send last November was “stop the partisan bickering and put us back to work.” That is still what the voters want. Republican leaders make a mistake in refusing to hear that message, and Democrats who don’t take advantage of that disconnect miss a huge opportunity to reverse their fortunes in 2012.

Goddard is a founding partner of 
political consultants Goddard Claussen.
E-mail: ben@gcpublicaffairs.com