As the government shutdown goes through its third week, poll after poll indicates that Republicans are taking the brunt of the blame. As Examiner noted last week, an NBC News/Wall St. Journal poll found approval of the Republican Party at a historic low. Generic congressional polls (summarized on Real Clear Politics), which have been in a dead heat all year, have turned against Republicans since the shutdown. Recent polling shows a consistent advantage for Democratic candidates.
Through it all, Republicans have made no headway in defunding the Affordable Care Act. In fact, the negotiations to reopen the government have shifted toward a new Democratic demand to undo the sequester cuts from last January. The sequester represented a rare GOP victory during the Obama era. It also worked. As Stephen Moore pointed out in the Wall St. Journal, the sequester law actually reduced spending and cut the deficit by about half. Removing the sequester’s spending limits would represent a major defeat for Republicans.
The government shutdown also tarnishes the Republican reputation for fiscal responsibility, an area where Republicans polled well before the shutdown. The shutdown is costing an estimated $160 million per day on the conservative side. Higher estimates rise to more than $1 billion per day in lost growth and other factors. To add insult to injury, the House voted last week to give furloughed federal workers their back pay, which means that federal workers will be paid for doing nothing if the Senate passes the bill.
Defunding Obamacare, which, as noted in Examiner last month, would require the votes of a minimum of five Democrats in the Senate (overturning President Obama’s certain veto would require the votes of 54 Democrats in the House and 21 in the Senate), is beyond the reach of the GOP and the party is taking heavy damage from its stand. Since the original goal of defunding Obamacare is clearly unattainable, where should Republicans go from here?
The Republicans should look to the Hippocratic Oath for guidance: “First, do no harm.” The government shutdown must be ended to avoid irreparable harm to the Republican Party, but, by the same token, the Republicans cannot accept a deal that ends the sequester while offering nothing in return. A return to the status quo would be acceptable, if humiliating. Writing in the Guardian, Grover Norquist proposed a deal in which the sequester is lifted temporarily in exchange for entitlement reform. Republicans should get what they concessions they can, but they must end the shutdown before it leads to a default.
After the government is reopened, Republicans need to make some strategic changes. Railing against Obamacare and just saying no don’t work. If they did, Mitt Romney would be in the White House.
First and most important, the Republicans need to start listening to the American people. The American people oppose Obamacare, but they opposed a government shutdown by even larger margins. As Examiner reported in September, 54 percent opposed Obamacare, but 71 percent opposed the shutdown. Republicans have traditionally criticized the Democrats for their attitude that “we know what’s best for you,” but the GOP has fallen into the same trap and is paying the price for it.
Second, Republicans need to change the focus of their argument. Arthur Brooks points out that Republicans cede the moral argument to Democrats and focus on materialistic concerns such as debt or abstractions such as free markets and capitalism. To the contrary, the left uses emotional arguments, caring for the poor, to advance policy agendas that actually hurt the poor. Brooks’ concern is borne out by CNN exit polls that show a staggering 81 percent of the voters who thought caring about people was a candidate’s most important quality voted for Barack Obama.
In Brooks’ view, the answer is to focus on how conservative policies help people. This does not require changing conservative principles; instead it means reframing arguments to say, “We will fight for you and your family” rather than fighting against things, such as Obamacare.
When the government shutdown is ended, Republicans will be able to return the focus to why Obamacare is bad for the American people. This should be an easy task given Obamacare’s disastrous debut. The much-vaunted health care exchanges are plagued with glitches that make it difficult for consumers to log on and purchase insurance. Consumers who are actually able to navigate the exchanges often find that their insurance premiums have gone up due to the new law. As the Chicago Tribune notes, deductibles, the share of medical bills that the consumer must pay before insurance kicks in, are also increasing. This means that not only are Americans paying more up front for health insurance, they are paying more when they go to the doctor as well.
The Republicans should be talking about how these premium increases affect families across the country who are still reeling from the Great Recession and its lackluster recovery. They should be standing with Americans like Adam Weldzius, the 33-year-old single father in the Chicago Tribune article who has to choose between an insurance premium that doubles or a deductible that triples.
Finally, Republicans must go beyond saying “no” and communicate a positive vision for the future. It isn’t enough to want to repeal Obamacare, for example. Rising health care costs will still be an issue if and when the Affordable Care Act goes away. Karl Rove presented some ideas for conservative health care reform in August and Examiner covered the topic last year, but these have been the exceptions. For the most part, the Republican message on health care has been negative.
Finally, Republicans need to remember who the real adversary is and focus their attention on President Obama and the Democrats rather than bashing each other. To defeat the Democrats and repeal Obamacare, the Republicans must unite and find a common voice. Interparty bickering and squabbles drown out any positive message that the Republicans try to convey to voters.
As President Reagan was fond of saying, “The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally — not a 20 percent traitor.” Nevertheless, Republicans like John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and John Cornyn have had their reputations trashed and been the victims of vicious personal attacks. Yet, when their records are examined, the American Conservative Union gives them lifetime ratings of 82 percent, 89 percent, and 93 percent respectively. All three have consistently voted against Obamacare.
The shortsightedness of the Republican Party threatens not only the possibility of GOP control of the Senate after the 2014 elections, but continued control of the House as well. A few simple midcourse corrections might persuade Americans that the Republican Party is a viable alternative to the Democratic habit of taking money from Americans to fund programs that harm them.