GOP Drago vs. reform

“I must break you.”

Those were the pointed words of Ivan Drago, a fictional Soviet boxing sensation, to the American champion he threatened to topple, in 1985’s “Rocky IV.”

Portrayed as something of a communist automaton in red shorts, Drago stood for everything that was wrong with the sport and perhaps that era’s geopolitics. His primary motive: destroy his opponent at all costs.

Similar words were uttered this week by a less physically imposing, real-life character, the latest South Carolina Republican to embarrass himself: Sen. Jim DeMint. He was speaking to a group determined to block health insurance reform and preserve the industry’s stranglehold over medical decisionmaking.

DeMint told Conservatives for Patients Rights that killing President Obama’s healthcare plan would be good politics for those resistant to changing Washington. “If we’re able to stop Obama on this it will be his Waterloo. It will break him,” he said.

DeMint had the chutzpah to say what other defenders of the status quo find impolitic: that protecting business-as-usual in Washington means putting political point-scoring ahead of efforts to find common ground on America’s big challenges.

The president’s response to DeMint struck a familiar chord. “This isn’t about me,” said President Obama. “This isn’t about politics. This is about a healthcare system that is breaking America’s families, breaking America’s businesses and breaking America’s economy. And we can’t afford the politics of delay and defeat when it comes to healthcare ... ”

It was an echo of Obama’s frequent message on the campaign trail. “This election is not about me, or any candidate,” Obama told supporters the night he clinched the Democratic nomination. “Don’t ever forget that this campaign is about you about your hopes, about your dreams, about your struggles, about securing your portion of the American Dream.”

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, battered by his party’s base for his candid criticism of Rush Limbaugh earlier this year, defended the do-nothing strategy by adopting more politically palatable language crafted by Republican strategist Alex Castellanos. “Slow down, Mr. President,” Steele said in a speech this week. “We can’t afford to get healthcare wrong.” Translation: Stop, Mr. President. The insurance industry and its allies can’t afford for you to get anything done.

But the defenders of the status quo aren’t palookas. Rallying insurance industry executives to the anti-reform cause isn’t sufficient to kill a healthcare reform effort that’s earned the support of the American Medical Association and the American Nurses Association. They need to cast a wider net. Castellanos recommends that opponents talk about taxes.

Castellanos continues to show deep empathy to the plight of the super-wealthy. Under a proposal advanced this month, it is only those earning more than a quarter-million dollars a year who would face a surcharge to finance health insurance reform.

And it’s not exactly soaking the rich. Households earning a half-million dollars a year would pony up an additional $1,500 in 2011. Millionaires would pay an extra $9,000. Not exactly an unbearable price for the very fortunate when it means making quality healthcare affordable for families while also meeting the president’s demand that reform be deficit-neutral.

There are some who will object to such progressive policymaking on purely ideological grounds, arguing that lower taxes on the wealthy is the key to job creation. But we tried that approach during 15 rounds of the previous administration, and, well, it didn’t work out. If those whose hearts bleed for the super-rich are sincerely focused on boosting the economy, they should support the Obama plan, which relieves the burden of soaring healthcare costs on small businesses. These small firms, according to the Small Business Administration, have created up to 80 percent of net jobs in the past decade. But if healthcare reform goes down, small-business owners will have only two choices: slash benefits for their employees or lay off workers. It’s not what America needs right now.

Twenty-four years after the release of “Rocky IV,” an epic battle is being waged in Washington, one that pits insurance-company lobbyists and advocates for business-as-usual against a new president and his grassroots movement for change. It’s not yet clear who will prevail. But for Americans who want a break from the same old Washington games, it’s pretty evident who’s in their corner.

Del Cecato is a partner at AKPD Message and Media, the political consulting firm founded by David Axelrod in 1985. He served as media adviser and admaker for Obama for America and Obama-Biden 2008.