Speaking too Bluntly on healthcare

Republicans don't really want any bill at all -- they just can't say it

Published July 23, 2009 4:20PM (EDT)

Sure, Republicans say they care about healthcare reform. But sometimes you get that sense that, deep down, the party's leaders don't exactly think of it as a priority issue. 

So maybe it should come as no surprise that Missouri Rep. Roy Blunt, who heads the House Republican healthcare task force, says that the party probably won’t put forward a rival proposal. Said Blunt, “Our bill is never going to get to the floor, so why confuse the focus? We clearly have principles; we could have language, but why start diverting attention from this really bad piece of work they’ve got to whatever we’re offering right now?”

Perhaps Blunt had briefly forgotten the advice of Republican message guru Frank Luntz. In a memo several months ago, Luntz warned Republicans not to allow the battle to become "President Obama is on the side of reform and Republicans are against it," even though the party's public relations goal ought to be "downplay[ing] the need for a comprehensive national plan." 

Sensing that his earlier comment might not be the best talking point, on Thursday Blunt clarified,

Our reform plan to lower costs, increase access, and improve quality was released weeks ago and it is well-known. There’s a variety of tactics that could be employed during the debate on the House floor and the leadership won’t make a final decision next week until the Democrats announce how they will proceed.

Blunt's original comments hearken back to the tactics Bill Kristol laid out during the fight over the Clinton administration's reform policy. In 1993, he wrote a now-infamous memo urging Republicans not to offer an alternative proposal, because that would concede that reform was necessary. He also encouraged the GOP to throttle the whole idea of comprehensive reform in the crib, because, regardless of -- or, he seemed to imply, because of -- its policy merits, Clinton’s proposal would “give the Democrats a lock on the crucial middle-class vote and revive the reputation of the party.”

Once again, for Republicans, inaction on healthcare is ideal. It’s true, as Blunt points out, that they have no ability to pass their own bill, but it's not like they tried so hard when they did have the majority. For the GOP right now, fighting over healthcare isn't really fighting over healthcare; it's a chance to "break" Obama, as South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint put it. Or, as Blunt himself says, the choice is not between policy options, but between “a variety of tactics.”

This sort of thing might work politically for a minority party that hadn’t lately been smacked down by voters. The “new ideas” versus “better tactics” debate, after all, roiled Democrats for years, but they ultimately returned to power without really rethinking their philosophy or proposals in any big way -- they just had to wait out President Bush. If Republicans maintain down-the-line opposition on healthcare to a president who, though he has lost some credibility, continues to have far more than his opponents, they’re probably going to concede permanent ownership of the issue even more than they already have.

By Gabriel Winant

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

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