House Republican leader John Boehner's final rant against health care reform, featuring the refrain of "hell no," aptly summarized the temper and the substance of the general Republican position as the run up to the fall elections begins. (Rumors that the normally phlegmatic Boehner was incensed because a tax on tanning salons is the only tax in the health care bill that will kick in this year are unfounded. Democratic aides gleefully dismiss allegations that the tax was aimed personally at the perpetually tanned Boehner, a congressman from Ohio. )
Republicans pivoted immediately from "kill the bill" to "repeal the deal.' Reacting to defeat in the manner of a spoiled child taking away the ball after losing a game, Senator John McCain, once known for his independence, led a chorus of Republicans vowing "no cooperation" on any future issue. It will be hard to tell the difference. Most Americans are only beginning to sense just how unified the Republican minority has been in obstruction. Record filibusters in the Senate. Unprecedented holds on Obama appointees. Not one vote from Republicans for health care reform in the House or Senate. Not one Republican vote in the House for financial reform. Not one Republican vote in the Senate banking committee. Republicans even filibustered the recovery plan after their members had worked to weaken it. They bet early and often on Obama's failure - and it appears to be paying off.
Republicans have been salivating about their prospects in the fall elections. Newt Gingrich predicts they will take control of both Houses. Prognosticators expect big gains. If Republicans gain significant seats, what will be the mandate? What are they for? You can't tell from this Congress. They've chosen simply to stand in the way.
This isn't an accident. It is, as George W. Bush would say, "strategery." You may think elections should provide voters with a clear choice, each candidate detailing where he or she would take the country, but today's politics are defined by the 30 second attack ad, not Lincoln-Douglas debates. (And that's the tame part. The health care debate was punctuated by racial and homophobic slurs, a brick through the home office window of a Democratic legislator, death threats and more)
Republicans believe, as corporate lobbyist and conservative strategist, former Rep. Vin Weber, summarized, "this year will be a referendum on Democrats. We need an alternative agenda [for the presidential race] - but that's not the principle objective in off-year elections."
"Hell no" will do fine.
A Republican Party pro, former Rep. Tom Davis, president of the Republican Main Street Partnership, and former head of the Republican Congressional Committee, recently spelled out the strategy for Republicans in Politico.
The Democrats' fate, he argues, depends on "events on the ground," primarily the economy. If the economy comes back, Dems will be rewarded; if not, they will be punished.
But, he warns, Republicans shouldn't "count their chickens." "Voters fired Republicans in 2006 and 2008 and are not eager to put them back in charge." Luckily, in a two party election, Republican candidates will get the protest vote. That's a vote to check Obama, for divided government, and "American voters like divided government." [This curious notion is conventional wisdom, but while Americans may end up with divided government, they don't like gridlock. They are looking for solutions to big time problems]
Davis urges Republicans to be careful: don't fall for "traps set by Democrats to make the elections a choice between competing visions." If it's a choice, Republicans will get hurt. A choice election would motivate the Democratic base.
"Republican leaders should remember that they need not offer specifics," Davis writes. "Specific programs are targets." They let Democrats pose a choice; they can "drive away wary voters." Also, Davis warns, Republicans need to "measure their words and actions" so they don't drive away independents. Obviously, those angry tea partiers will need to be put in the closet. "Red meat is more likely to awaken the Obama surge voters than to prompt additional turnout among Republicans."
So the Conservative Political Action Committee Conference came and went, with Republican pre-presidentials lining up one after another to indict Obama and demonize House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, without revealing much of what they actually were peddling. The current conservative darling, Marco Rubio, running for the Senate seat in Florida, was a classic example. After detailing the corporate and top end tax cuts he supports - eliminating taxes on estates, capital gains, dividends and interest (the unearned income that accrues largely to the wealthiest Americans) and lowering corporate taxes, he called for "serious measures that show that we are serious about getting control of our federal national debt," while mentioning nary a one.
The perils of policy are clear. A leading Republican conservative, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, has had the courage to step up and offer an alternative "Roadmap" for America's future. He decided it was important to show Republicans had the policies to lift us from this crisis.
His plan, like Rubio's speech, features steep tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans, elimination of corporate tax while raising taxes on middle income Americans through a value added tax, a hidden sales tax on consumers. He would cut and privatize Social Security, terminate Medicare, Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program, replacing them with vouchers of decreasing value over time. He'd move to supplant employer based insurance with a refundable tax credit so individuals can experience the delight of bargaining with insurance companies on their own for coverage -- without any of the protections in the health care reform bill. He'd freeze domestic discretionary spending for a decade. This would reduce federal spending to a level not seen since the 1950s when Medicare and Medicaid did not exist and the poverty rate among the elderly was at 50 %.
In Ryan's world, millionaires would pay taxes at a lower rate than middle income earners. More seniors would end in poverty. The healthy might afford health insurance; the sick would go without. The nation's sewers and bridges would continue to collapse. Its schools remain unrepaired and overcrowded. And, after all that, the national debt would still soar to 175% of GDP by 2050, adding literally trillions in deficits.
House minority leader John Boehner said he couldn't think of anything to disagree with this program, but noted not all Republicans support it. Once analysts got a hold of it, Boehner disavowed it as "Ryan's plan." So Republicans will follow Davis' advice. Offer a protest, not a choice, and hope Americans don't look behind the curtain.
The logic of the Republican strategy is clear. With unemployment high, incomes stagnant, and Wall Street cashing million dollar bonuses, voters have much to be mad about. And they generally discount complaints about the minority's obstruction; voters sensibly expect the president and the governing party to deliver and punish them if they don't.
But the cynics may be mistaken this fall. Americans are hurting and know the country is in trouble. They are looking for answers. They know Washington is busted, dominated by entrenched corporate lobbies, big money, and partisan politics. Republicans have linked arms with the worst special interests to stave off reforms. They've stood with the insurance companies against health care reform. They are soliciting Wall Street money while fighting to gut consumer financial protection. Their plan for jobs is to peddle more of the conservative policies that put us in this hole.
If Democrats focus on creating jobs while pushing to curb the financial casino and protect consumers from abuses of credit card companies, payday lenders and mortgage brokers -- and Republicans continue their obstruction -- voters might just decide the election is a choice: between those struggling for change and those standing with the entrenched interests against it. That's a choice that just might arouse the Obama base enough to make a difference. If the jobs don't come back and Democrats decide its easier to cater to the banking lobby than to buck it, then, despite the historic achievement on health care, the Republican strategy of "hell no" might just work.
Follow Robert L. Borosage on Twitter: www.twitter.com/borosage