Are Republicans ready to fight healthcare reform?

Democrats line up an array of groups to keep a compromise on the table; the GOP may not have the firepower to just say no.

Published April 20, 2009 7:55PM (EDT)

Democrats have been waiting a long time -- since 1994 -- for the moment when a healthcare overhaul might be viable again. They’ve used the interim to get ready. Debates among think-tankers, journalists, academics and politicians have helped the party hone ideas, and zero in on what Democrats hope is the sweet spot between politically viable and sufficiently sweeping. (Remember the never-ending argument about mandates during the Democratic primaries?) And this time, they don’t want to be out-hustled by a more organized opposition.

Fortunately for them, Politico has a big story today suggesting that, when it comes to healthcare reform, the GOP is heavily outgunned:

The organizational strength behind Obama’s plan is enormous. The House speaker, the Senate majority leader and the committee chairmen have agreed to work together, minimizing the turf wars that doomed former President Bill Clinton’s effort in the 1990s. The major labor unions have teamed up with business groups. An umbrella group for liberal organizations, Health Care for America Now, is spending $40 million on the fight.

Republicans, on the other hand, aren't nearly as prepared for a fight. Their candidates rarely talk about it, and it’s unusual -- though not unheard of -- to see right-leaning pundits voicing substantive opinions on healthcare other than objections to “socializing” it.

"There’s no Republican plan yet. No Republicans leading the charge who have coalesced the party behind them," Politico's Carrie Budoff Brown writes. "Their message is still vague and unformed. Their natural allies among insurers, drug makers and doctors remain at the negotiating table with the Democrats."

It’s not hard to see the ghost of HillaryCare haunting this fight. The Clinton healthcare plan, recall, went down in the face of unanimous Republican opposition. William Kristol, then a top GOP message-maker at the Project for the Republican Future, famously convinced his party that any negotiated compromise would mean surrender to creeping statism, urging, "The plan should not be amended; it should be erased."

Obviously, the Kristol strategy worked, helping bring about two major Democratic disasters: the plan’s defeat and the loss of Congress. Having learned this harsh lesson -- all the way down to the catchphrase "There is no crisis" -- Democrats applied it with brutal success to then-President Bush’s attempt to privatize Social Security. Here, too, they prevented defections from their own party, and not only killed a major attempted overhaul, but dealt a near-paralyzing blow to an entire presidency.

All of that clearly seems to add up to a favorable environment for Obama to push his plan. Moderate senators might choose to vote no over voting yes to a bill they have no part in crafting. But so long as Obama can keep some of the interests that aligned against Clinton at the table for a compromise, he has a shot at forging an option more appetizing to, say, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, than a reflexive no vote would be.

On the other hand, today’s congressional Republicans have shown remarkable intransigency so far. If they do put up a unanimous front against Obama on healthcare, or recruit some Democratic allies, the president might resort to the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process to jam his proposal through.

Should he do so, the fight will move out from behind closed doors and into the arena of public opinion. Democrats will argue that the GOP is just saying no to everything and is obstructing the will of the majority; Republicans will accuse Democrats of assaulting time-honored traditions and trampling on cherished freedoms. (Glenn Beck will no doubt act like the Reichstag just burned down.) This is where that $40 million campaign budget could come in handy; if the Republicans can't come up with anything to match it, a reverse Harry-and-Louise moment could be in the works.

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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