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Republicans Should Fight or Give Up

There is nothing in the middle.

1:31 PM, Oct 11, 2013 • By JAY COST
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The findings of the newly released NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll are simply brutal for congressional Republicans. Not only are they getting the lion's share of the blame for the government shutdown, but President Obama's numbers have actually improved. Worse, Obamacare's numbers are improving, as well.

Obama and House Republicans in January 2009

Obama and House Republicans in January 2009

That poll caused quite a sensation on Twitter last night, and while it is worse for Republicans than recent readings from the Associated Press's poll, NBC News/Wall Street Journal has a long track record of solid readings. This is not a result to be taken lightly.

Moreover, it makes empirical sense considering the message coming from congressional Republicans in the last week—or perhaps better put the lack of a message. Marc Thiessen of the Washington Post aptly labeled this the "Seinfeld Shutdown," a shutdown about nothing. That is not how it was supposed to be, of course. It was supposed to be a shutdown about Obamacare, but Republican leaders were quickly sidetracked by low-hanging fruit like the closure of the National Mall, Harry Reid's gaffes, and Obama's refusal to negotiate. Tactically, this might have made sense, but strategically it was a terrible move. If the shutdown was supposed to be about Obamacare, then that should have been the only topic Republicans discussed.

Moreover, insofar as Republican leaders have discussed Obamacare, they have done so ineptly, and have repeated Mitt Romney's grievous mistakes from 2012. Looking at the topline numbers on Obamacare, we can see it is very unpopular, but dig a little deeper and only about 30 to 40 percent of people believe that the law will make them worse off. This is a significant failure in political communication by the Republican party. Government agencies like the Congressional Budget Office and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have warned since 2010—in their dry, technocratic rhetoric—that Obamacare was going to harm middle class families. For weeks now stories have been trickling out about people receiving letters from their insurers notifying them that their rates are being doubled. For over a year we have similarly heard stories about hiring freezes or hours being cut because of Obamacare. And yet despite all this hard data, the public still has not connected the dots. 

The blame belongs not to the Tea Party, not to the Republican grassroots, not to the back-benchers in the House, but to the party's leaders, the ones who have the microphones stuck in their faces every day. They, and only they, have the power to make the case to the American people that Obamacare is such a danger to them that it needs to be gotten rid of as soon as possible. Mitt Romney should have, but did not, get on the television in late October 2012 to warn people that a vote for Obama was a vote to double their premiums, make it harder for grandma to get hospital care, and make it harder for you to make your ends meet because of job cutbacks. Similarly, Republicans should have, but did not, acknowledge that while the shutdown was harming certain sectors of the country, it was far less damaging then the havoc Obamacare is set to wreak on the people.

And so it is that people would rather have the government reopened (largely a symbolic gesture as this shutdown has left vast swaths of the country unaffected) than have Obamacare dismantled (something that will prevent material harm done to millions of middle class people).

Obamacare is not going to defeat itself. If it is going to be taken down, it is up to the Republican party to formulate a coalition of people who have been or will be made worse off because of it. Those people are out there, but Republicans have failed to unite and mobilize them under the party's banner. So long as they continue to fail on this front, Obamacare will remain on the books. It has the benefit of our system's status quo bias, and Democrats have an 80-year track record of capturing interests through the distribution of benefits, transforming them into party clients, and delivering them at the ballot box. 

Republican leaders tend to come from one of two camps. The first is the go-along-to-get-along camp that is happy merely to manage the never-ending growth of government. The second wants to cut back on the size of government, but couches their rhetoric in the hazy, forgotten past of the country's founding; their arguments against the growth of government are always framed in terms of the Constitution, the rights of man, or other abstract concepts that have little impact on the lives of average American.

Ronald Reagan was the only political leader since the New Deal to argue effectively that government should be reduced because it is bad for people in a concrete sense. Yes, he talked about the Founding, and yes he was willing to compromise where it counted. But in his Inaugural Address he said, "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." For the next quarter century, American liberalism was on the run, so effective was Reagan's framing of the debate.

Republicans who wonder why they have generally failed to win national electoral victories since Reagan should ponder his statement, and how they have failed to expand upon it. Poll after poll indicates that today it is a popular position. People think government is harming them. If Republicans want to win, not just electoral victories, but policy victories, they need to follow the Gipper and explain in real terms how government is harming average Americans and how they will fix those harms. They have failed to do that in general over the last decade, and they have failed to do that in particular with Obamacare. It is a big reason why they only control the House and why Obamacare is still on the books.

And if congressional Republicans are not prepared to begin making that case loud and clear right now, the sooner they capitulate the better. Their only hope of victory in this fight is to convince the public that keeping Obamacare is worse than shutting down the government. If they are not prepared to make that case, then they have no hope of winning.

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