The GOP can keep Obama from scoring

By Dana M. Perino
|  Monday, Sep 28, 2009  |  Updated 4:47 AM CDT
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So here we are in the home stretch of the health care debate: The game is tied, with bases loaded; there are three balls and two strikes, and President Barack Obama’s at bat. Will he hit it out of the park, strike out or score just one run by having to walk?

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So here we are in the home stretch of the health care debate: The game is tied, with bases loaded; there are three balls and two strikes, and President Barack Obama’s at bat. Will he hit it out of the park, strike out or score just one run by having to walk?

Republicans are in the outfield (literally). They’ve played a good game and kept it interesting, and now they have to be ready for any of the above possibilities. What’s their best hope in this game?

Three suggestions for the GOP team:

Read the field.

One of the most important aspects of any debate is research: understanding where people are coming from. We know that the majority of Americans are very concerned about the direction of the country and think that something needs to be done to rein in Wall Street, but they also don’t believe that a bigger government presence in their lives is going to make things better. For all the promise of change, rarely does America embrace seismic shifts. As a good friend from North Carolina used to tell me, “Nobody likes change except a baby.”

Anxiety and unease in America have been building for a while. People are worried about their financial futures after the shocks of the economic near collapse last year, and they want to be sure the government is taking action to protect them in the future. They are worried about the size and scope of government and how we’re going to pay for it all. And they are worried about the unintended consequences of government intrusion; once it’s baked in the cake, you can never get it out.

These anxieties are culminating during the health care debate. There’s a wide spectrum of concerns — from those who worry constantly about losing their job or about the possibility of going bankrupt if they or someone in their family gets sick, to those worried about losing the health care they have and the doctor they like. Even if they don’t think it’s perfect, they aren’t convinced that it’s totally broken — and they’re uncomfortable with the Democrats’ proposal. They are more supportive of ways to address some of the problems without wholesale reform. By understanding the mood of the full spectrum of Americans, the GOP can deliver persuasive messages that people will support, since its ideas address the need for change with specific fixes.

Continue to try to get on base with targeted fixes. 

For two years, the Democrats have charged that Republicans are the “party of no,” and that’s grated on many nerves. Republicans have been talking about their proposals so much their faces are nearly blue. They’ve offered ideas to address the challenge of improving health care in America, but because they don’t have the bully pulpit and can’t get a word in edgewise, their ideas get lost. At the same time, as the opposition party, the GOP has an obligation to offer smart analysis of the problems they see in the policy proposals.

 

The Republicans’ ideas are conservative and tailored. For example, the GOP proposes:

• Equalizing tax treatment for individuals who want to buy insurance on their own;

• Allowing insurance to be sold across state lines;

• Ensuring that a person won’t be excluded from coverage because of a pre-existing condition;

• Guaranteeing that people can take their health plan with them if they change jobs; and

• Putting the brakes on “Trial Lawyers Gone Wild.”

Because the majority of people don’t believe that we need a complete overhaul, the GOP should trumpet these ideas as ones that would have an immediate impact without growing the government and adding more than just a few dimes to the deficit.

Criticize on the merits — and force some outs.

Throughout the debate, constructive criticism has actually been the norm. But as with anything, the outbursts and outlandish things said by people from both sides get the most media attention. While the Democrats try to get under their skin, Republicans have to try not to take the bait. They’ve got the best arguments, so keeping it on the merits is the best way to gain ground.

As part of that, Republicans should continue to force the Democrats to level with the American people on how much this is going to cost, how the changes will affect them personally and what’s hidden in the nooks and crannies of the bills. Because the Democrats haven’t been able to answer these questions, every poll shows more slippage in support for them.

Those poll numbers have to trouble the Democrats; even though they’ve taken to saying they don’t believe the polls. I’m pretty sure they believed them when the previous president had low approval ratings. Because of their concern, Democrats have increased their hollow pledges of bipartisanship, even though they should be able to pass their bill on a party-line vote. It’s not that they need a bipartisan bill; it’s that they want one for political cover.

There’s an awful lot at stake here. Let’s play ball!

Dana M. Perino served as White House press secretary from 2007 to 2009 and is chief issues counselor at Burson-Marsteller U.S.

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