Part Two -- The Strategy
As we saw in Part One of this series, the Achilles Heels of Obamacare are taxes and trust. If the voters had known in 2010 what they know in 2012--that Obamacare is ObamaTax--the bill would not have passed. And Obama and the Democrats know that, too. That’s why they are still fighting over whether or not it’s a tax or a penalty; for the sake of their own survival, they need to keep their rhetorical fog machine fogging. In this effort, partisan Democrats enjoy the full support of the hard ideological left, and the left knows that if Obamacare is brought down, it is unlikely that replacement legislation of European-style scope would have a chance of passage. In other words, this is a last stand for the bureaucratic left--and last-standers have a way of fighting to the death. That’s why Republicans need to wield the cudgel wisely--but also strongly. There can be no quarter in this fight.
Yet Republicans Are Fumbling the Opportunity
Meanwhile, Republicans are wielding the cudgel, alright--but they are missing the target. Indeed, so far, they seem to be conking their own heads.
Obama and the Democrats should at least have to work harder to see Romney and the Republicans being tripped up over simple terminology. The White House knows that every day that the GOP spends fumbling around on the surface semantics of Obamacare is a day that the White House can worry less about the unpopular tax-reality of Obamacare.
In politics, as in a courtroom, when the facts change, the argument must change. If a key witness has been revealed as a perjurer, a mistrial is declared, and a new trial must commence.
Similarly, Republicans should heed the lesson--and the opportunity--of the Roberts ruling. It’s not particularly productive for the GOP to simply keep repeating its rote mantra of “Repeal and Replace,” or even just “Repeal.” Frankly, to merely repeat the old words sounds stale; as with anything involving humans and their attention spans, the message must be kept fresh. Moreover, in their determination to refight the old battle against Obamacare on the exact same terms as two years ago, there’s even a whiff of sour grapes. The Republicans are acting like the Bourbon kings of France. As Talleyrand said of them, “They have learned nothing, and forgotten nothing.”
Democrats fear a singular focus on the ObamaTax because it is a fresh yet compelling attack, a nuanced variation on the familiar theme. It infuses the Republican argument with new energy. It becomes the cudgel with the embedded nail. And the beauty of it all is that an attack on the ObamaTax is that it is still the same as an attack on Obamacare, because if the mandate/tax goes, the whole edifice falls. Indeed, given the added twist of the trust issue, we can also say that if the voters’ trust in the Democrats goes, so will go their support across the board.
So let’s try and clear things up, so that anti-Obamacare forces can develop a strategy for 2012 and beyond: it’s that longer, larger, vision that will persuade the voters. Yes, parts of the bill are popular, but more important parts of the bill are unpopular. Opponents need the political equivalent of Ockham’s Razor--that the simplest explanation is usually the best. That is, Republicans don’t need to do more than they need to do. What they need to do is focus on the central vulnerability of Obamacare--the ObamaTax, and the individual mandate it supports, which more than two-thirds of the American people strongly believe is fundamentally wrong.
To use a hoary cliché that is nonetheless distinctly apt, on the tax issue, the Democrats in the House and Senate are between a rock and a hard place. Either they admit that they were misleading voters and raised taxes, or they admit that they participated in the misleading--and raised taxes. If they admit that they raised taxes, and lied about, they are dead. On the other hand, if they claim that they, too, were victims of misinformation, then they face the natural test--they must vote to repeal the ObamaTax and the mandate. But to do that, to vote for repeal, is to blow up Obamacare, and with it, the Democratic power structure. That they cannot do. That’s their choice--their Hobson’s Choice.
The question is, will the Republicans frame it that way, to trap the Democrats? Or will they, once again, by overreaching, give the Democrats an escape hatch?
To date, the Republicans seem absolutely confused and in political disarray. As we have seen, many Republicans are leery of seeking to uproot the bill outright. Some fear that taking on Obamacare is just a distraction. Others seem resigned to waving the white flag of surrender on the issue. Indeed, some who profess to be in favor of outright repeal also, at the same time, profess to be pessimistic about their chances--that’s no way to fire up their troops. What general says, “C’mon men! Forward to the fight. We probably won’t succeed, but let’s fight anyway”? On July 2, for example, the leader of the Senate Republicans, Mitch McConnell, seemed to throw in the towel on the overall repeal of Obamacare, telling a group of hospital workers in Kentucky, “If you thought it was a good idea for the federal government to go in this direction, I’d say the odds are still on your side, because it’s a lot harder to undo something than it is to stop it in the first place.” If the leader is faint-hearted, the followers, too, will become faint of heart.
Next week the Republican-controlled House will vote to repeal all of Obamacare. If Republicans simply want ineffective symbolism, they will only seek a vote to repeal the entire bill, knowing that it will fail, that it will die in the Democratic Senate, just as it did in January 2011. For reasons we have seen, demanding the repeal of all of Obamacare is too dull, it is a re-run, and worst of all, it is a grievous political mistake.
Indeed, the full-repeal vote next week will actually help the Democrats. Why? Because, as we have seen, Obamacare contains some popular provisions--pre-existing conditions, young people under 26, the Medicare donut-hole. So if Republicans put the whole bill up for a vote again, Democrats in at-risk seats have cover; they can say that their vote against total repeal was jut a defense of the “good parts.” Lastly, Obama and the Democrats will point to the whole Republican effort as just a waste of time--legislative fiddling while the economy burns.
But there is another, better, way, literally with the Republicans’ grasp. It is not only a better way, but it is a path to political victory.
At their best, Republicans have adapted to changing circumstance in imaginative ways. As Abraham Lincoln put it so brilliantly in 1862, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”
It is time for Republicans to emulate the imaginative spirit of their first President; they must begin re-imagining, and reframing, the war over Obamacare. Again, that’s the importance of Ockham’s Razor--Republicans should not let Democrats get away with voting for the good parts, they should make Democrats vote to defend the indefensible bad parts. If they want effective lawmaking, they will put only the ObamaTax/mandate provision up for an unencumbered repeal vote. That is, target the weak part, and thereby bring the whole thing crashing down.
They need to put the Big Lie of 2010 on legislative trial next week and force a vote on affirming or rejecting the lie on the ObamaTax and the mandate. And in doing so, strike a death blow at the vulnerable heart of Obamacare. Do that, and they will kill Obamacare.
And there’s another dividend for Republicans to reap on the the anti-ObamaTax “pure play.” By raising the specific issue of the tax, Republicans can also raise the specific--and scary--issue of an engorged IRS, engorged by the need to enforce the new tax. Thus, by voting solely against the tax, Republicans can also vote to strip the power of the IRS to snoop through every American’s personal and medical records in the name of enforcing ObamaTax. In the year-long debate prior to the passage, Obamacare opponents neglected this potent issues. They need not again. It now could come to the floor naturally. Let Democrats vote in favor of more IRS power in 2012, now that everyone knows that the beating heart of Obamacare is ObamaTax.
So one more time: Republicans should seize on the ObamaTax issue--and the entire package of taxes--to remind the voters that the Democrats misled the public in 2010, and, indeed, they are misleading the public still. Taxes are the anvil on which to hammer the Democrats. And dishonesty is that hammer. It’s the tax issue that resonates, twinned inevitably, of course, with the trust issue.
The Democrats Seize the Initiative, Attacking from a Position of Weakness
Amazingly, Republicans today are poised to make the same old fight, the same old way, daring the Democratic opposition to find new ways of counterattacking. Which they will.
The one thing that I can say for sure about the intellectual and cultural DNA of my party is that even when Democrats are outgunned, outnumbered, and surrounded, they still have one unalterable instinct--we fight. Oftentimes, it works; because energy and élan can turn the tide of even a seemingly hopeless battle. More than one Democrat has drawn inspiration from the French general Ferdinand Foch, who, when confronted with a seemingly unstoppable German juggernaut approaching the gates of Paris in 1914, cheerfully outlined his strategy: “My right has been pushed back, my left is giving way. The situation is excellent. Now I attack!” And it worked--the Germans were repelled in what became known as the Miracle of the Marne.
Now today, on the political battlefield, Obama and his allies are trying the same thing. And he has already succeeded in capturing the imagination of the political chattering class, which naturally delights in bold offensives, because they are newsworthy, and in red-meat blitzes, because they are quote-worthy. For example, just this weekend, Mike Allen, who writes the buzz-heavy “Playbook” column for Politico, highlighted some of Obama’s words from the campaign trail in Ohio under the headline, “Throwing Heat”:
Mr. Romney was one of the biggest promoters of the individual mandate. In Massachusetts, his whole idea was that we shouldn't have people who can afford to get health insurance to not buy it and then force you or me, or John Q. Public to have to pay for him when he gets sick. That's irresponsible. That's exactly what's included as part of my health care plan. And the fact that a whole bunch of Republicans in Washington suddenly said, this is a tax -- for six years he said it wasn’t, and now he has suddenly reversed himself.
So the question becomes, are you doing that because of politics? Are you abandoning a principle that you fought for, for six years simply because you're getting pressure for two days from Rush Limbaugh or some critics in Washington?
What chutzpah! You have to hand it to Obama and to the Obama campaign. With Fochian bravado, they are seeking to turn their potentially fatal vulnerability into a political strength. The issue, they are telling us, is not the deception of Obamacare, but rather the timidity of Romney. That is, the sheer cheekiness of the Obamans, threatens to bowl over the Bainiacs.
The Obama campaign is attempting to fake Team Romney--and Team GOP--right out of their jockstraps when it comes to Obamacare.
The Romney Campaign’s Fumble--and Romney’s Recovery
The Romney campaign’s initially fumbling response to the June 28 Roberts decision was not encouraging to Republicans. On July 2, spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom seemed to agree with the Obama campaign--on MSNBC of all places--that the mandate was not a tax, even after the Supreme Court said that it was. In so saying, Fehrnstrom risked giving the whole game away: if the Romneyites are willing to fold to the Obamans on a key issue--what could be the decisive issue--why bother having an election?
From a psychological point of view, it may be understandable that longtime loyalist such as Fehrnstrom to defend Romneycare, even if it meant defending Obamacare. But of course, from a political point of view, that defense makes no sense whatsoever. The legislation in Massachusetts was enacted seven years ago, and while Romney has not repudiated Romneycare, he has made it abundantly clear that he does not see that plan as a model for the nation as a whole. Such an alloyed message won’t please ideological purists, but it’s good enough to win a presidential election--if the incumbent’s performance is judged to be unacceptable. It’s the incumbent, stupid.
Two days later, on July 4, the words of Fehrnstrom were Etch A Sketched away. This was hardly the deftest or fastest cleanup ever, but at least it happened; the candidate himself had to step in and re-etch the message, saying of the Roberts Court: “They concluded it was a tax. That’s what it is. And the American people know that President Obama has broken the pledge he made. He said he wouldn't raise taxes on middle-income Americans ... It’s now clear that his mandate, as described by the Supreme Court, is a tax.” For the moment, it seems that Romney is getting the message--now we will see if he and his campaign can keep it.
Indeed, Romney’s 2012 campaign should remember another presidential campaign cursed with unjustified presumption: Walter Mondale’s 1984 candidacy, which made “dare to be cautious” a watchword. Money he has; it’s a strong message he needs.
Meanwhile, Obama, operating nimbly inside the Romney campaign’s decision loop, is busy attacking Romney, pivoting from the toxic substance of his healthcare legislation to the tempting target of Romney’s unsteadiness. Hey, Mitt, he said, “you can’t just switch on a dime.” We’ll see a lot more of that sort of “weathervane” rhetoric in the next four months.
The logic of the Obama argument matters less than the velocity of his assault; we could call it the Beltway version of “shock and awe.” And as we have seen, the press corps likes to be entertained by political theater more than it likes to inform the public--especially if a Democrat is providing the entertainment.
Romney himself must know that one of the cardinal rules of investment is, “Don’t get sentimental over sunk costs--if you need to, cut your losses.” Now is the time for Romney to cut his losses on healthcare. In This is not the time to rationalize what happened in Massachusetts in the last decade; this is the time to win the presidency in 2012. That’s what Romney needs to keep in mind: the issue is Obamacare, not Romneycare.
Romney needs to remember: He’s the challenger, he’s the outsider. He needs to be on the offensive as the outsider--he doesn’t have to respond to Obama like a dutiful schoolboy, he needs to make the onetime law professor answer for his attempt to sneak a stealth tax increase inside his 2700-page monstrosity. The main issue in this presidential election is the President--his record, the gap between his promises and his performance, the gap between his words and the truth.
The strongest criticism of Obamacare--the critique derived from the innate decency of the American people--is a simple moral argument: “Reject the lie, repeal ObamaTax.” By emphasizing this point, Republicans can move away from the Obamans’ political fortress--that Obamacare helps children and the elderly--and instead hit Obama on his weakest spot: that he broke his promise, broke his word, and attempted to manipulate the American people, to whom he promised to be both honest, and different.
A Bottom-Up Victory?
And so we come to a key point: If Romney wins, it will be a victory with the help of a strong party-wide Republican effort. Even beyond Romney, candidates for the Senate, House, and other offices are well-advised to emphasize the taxes-and-trust message, and if they do, they will not only help themselves, but also the entire GOP ticket. After all, few Republicans, other than Romney, are tainted by past flirtations with the mandate/tax. So this could well be a year in which the unleashed raw energy of base voters and swing voters bubbles up from the grassroots, helping even sometimes diffident candidates at the top.
The potential effect of the ObamaTax strategy is perhaps greatest in the battle for control of the US Senate; every Democratic incumbent was the 60th vote to pass Obamacare. Every one of them was the vital link in the chain of the Obamacare passage. Every one of them must answer for either his or her complicity in the Great Deception, or break with Harry Reid and agree to vote to redeem themselves and repeal the ObamaTax mandate.
Yet at least for now, the polls show that over the last year, the Republican brand has been damaged--too much obvious partisanship, too little in the way of positive problem-solving. So this November, too, down-ballot Republicans need some strategic clarity--and most of all, they need to be back on the offensive. As we have seen, the House GOP can put just the ObamaTax and its mandate up to a yea-or-nay vote. And then House Democrats will have vote to defend the tax and embrace the lie. And Senate Democratic incumbents must decide whether they are willing to bury the issue, and in doing so, confirm their mendacity in their original bait-and-switch. If that happens, an energized Republican can go after them with the same cudgel-and-nail that Romney can use against Obama.
Republicans can ask: Were the Democrats in the House and Senate part of the original deception? Or were they fooled by their own leaders? And now, in 2012, are they still being fooled? Or are they now part of a cover-up? By asking these questions, Republicans can drive a wedge between those Democrats in safe seats who can afford to stay loyal to the Obamacare ideology and those Democrats who tremble for their careers. And if those Democrats break ranks to save themselves, then the resulting chaos could turn a possible Republican victory into a Republican sweep. And what is the wedge? Again, the wedge is ObamaTax, the incredibly unpopular mandate and the original sin.
So an immediate opportunity for Republicans is to drill down on all those tax increases, taxes that will weaken the economy and hit the very people whom Obama promised in 2008 to protect--and claims to still protect--middle-income Americans. Obamacare contains 20 different tax increases, adding up to a total ten-year cost of $675 billion.
In addition, as a bonus opportunity issue, Republicans should highlight the reality of tax-collection--because it is the ugly reality of the mandate-imposed ObamaTax. The issue was raised during the original Obamacare fight in 2009-10, but it was not raised high enough. This in itself is a potential firestorm issue for Americans who are educated to what it means. But when it comes to taxes and trust, it’s never too late, because nobody trusts the IRS. So now its time for Republicans to pile on the incendiaries as they feed the anti-Obamacare fire.
Two years ago, nobody quite knew how the Obama administration would enforce the healthcare mandate, but everybody knows how the federal government collects a tax. By some estimates, to make Obamacare work, the Internal Revenue Service would have to hire 16,000 new IRS agents. That’s the equivalent of an entire US Army division. But in the popular mind, the IRS is not heroic, but rather, a vulture. So there’s a powerful TV spot to be done, featuring those 16,000 agents being rolled off Uncle Sam’s assembly line.
But the mandate is the vulnerable hole in the Obama Death Star. If Republican Skywalkers can fire a laser torpedo into that opening, they will destroy the whole menacing orb. To light up the mandate-tax is to illuminate all of the many taxes and the robotic army needed to collect and enforce them.
And if Republicans want truly to jolt the country, they will make the further point that a federal tax connected to healthcare will inevitably lead to government snooping into healthcare records of every American. As in, “Dear Mr. or Ms. Public: The Department of Health and Human Services and Obesity Regulation has noticed that you seem to be putting on a few pounds--too many pounds, we have determined, for your age category. So therefore, to eliminate this problem, we request and require that you…” Does anyone believe that Democrats would like to defend an aggrandized IRS on these issues?
The reality is that in the four months before the election, there’s really no time for Republicans to flesh out an alternative GOP healthcare plan. Nor should they fall for the MSM trap-- that it is imperative that the Republicans and Romney lay out an alternative plan. That is a road to nowhere, a detour around the main issue. All that time permits is the communication of the essential message: it’s a tax increase, and the tax-increasers are not to be trusted. The lie has been exposed: It’s the ObamaTax. And now here’s a whole division of IRS agents to extract it from the people.
This is the winning strategy for Republicans. This is the road not yet taken. This is the path that many Republicans leaders, with their blinders on, refuse to see. But it is the road that can lead them to a decisive victory in 2012.
If Republican leaders cannot and will not see the logic of this argument and take this case to the American people, then shame on them.
“Tax” is the Achilles Heel of Obamacare. “Trust” is the Achilles Heel of Obama.
That is how the Obamacare is defeated. Reject the lie. Repeal the ObamaTax.