Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Quit Whining, It's Your Own Damn Fault: A Letter to Congressional Republicans

In the late evening hours of Sunday, March 21st, 2010, the 111th Congress House of Representatives passed, by a vote of 219-212, H.R. 3590, the "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Representing the single largest expansion of federal government since FDR's New Deal, this 2074-page behemoth passed despite dogged opposition from the grass roots "Tea Party" movement, multiple state governments, and you, the Republican Senators and Representatives of Congress.


It passed despite fervent campaigning, the often heated rhetoric of conservative talk radio, and--according to statements made by many of your number--the will of the majority of the American people. In recent months, the health care reform debate seemed to be in its death throes. Opinion polls consistently showed support for this health care legislation, as well as President Obama's approval ratings, to be ensnared in a terminal downward spiral. The election of Republican Scott Brown by the traditionally liberal Massachusetts electorate to the Senate seat vacated by the late Senator Edward Kennedy seemed to herald a rising conservative backlash, and was widely interpreted as a referendum against the policies of President Obama and the Democratic party as a whole.

I'm not going to address or rehash the arguments against the many shortcomings and bad ideas in this health care "reform" bill. For those who were against it, no further argument is necessary--you've heard it all before. For those who were for it, no argument would matter—you don't want to hear it. In any event, it is done now, so a revisit is pointless, and it is not the objective of this letter. What I want to address here is why this bill succeeded despite all odds to the contrary. I am by no means a competent or qualified political analyst but, as the old saying goes, opinions are like assholes--everyone has one, so I do have a theory.

Republicans couldn't stop "Obamacare" from becoming a reality because, individually and collectively, because you have betrayed the ideological underpinnings of your own party, losing credibility with, and the respect of, the American people.

One could start all the way back at the "Contract with America," which did what it said it would do insofar as it promised only to raise the enumerated issues for a vote. This was ultimately a gimmick, however, since all but one of its provisions died in the Senate--hence it actually accomplished almost nothing. But let's stick with the more recent past. Here are some areas where, in my humble and unqualified opinion, the Republican party has lost credibility and respect, particularly under the leadership of George W. Bush.


Fiscal Policy

Fiscal responsibility, once the mainstay of the Republican ideological platform, went completely out the window under George W. Bush. The Bush white house mouthed the Reagan-esque language of tax cuts, and while they did manage to enact some modest, but temporary, tax relief legislation, the effect was minimal. Republicans had railed for years that significant tax cuts were impossible until the budget was balanced. Yet, despite a budget surplus and a majority in congress in the post-Clinton years, Republicans still failed to enact truly significant tax cut legislation. Bush, and the Republican congress who supported him, also apparently forgot that fair taxation was only one side of the fiscal responsibility coin. The other, perhaps more important side is disciplined, accountable spending, and here Republicans have failed abysmally. George W. Bush became the biggest spender since the dark days of Jimmy Carter. This was not all defense spending due to the war in Iraq, either. Defense spending increased by about 34% after Bush took office, but non-defense discretionary spending also increased by 28%! Congressional Republicans also failed to reduce or eliminate many of the wasteful, inefficient domestic programs plaguing the federal budget, including some, like foreign aid and the NEA, which have annoyed conservatives for decades. A joke I recently heard summarized it thus: "What is the difference between Democrats and Republicans? Democrats tax and spend. Republicans cut taxes and spend more." It also bears mentioning that the financial shenanigans of Wall Street, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac that precipitated our current economic crisis all went unchecked on the Republicans' watch.

Foreign Policy

Republicans' credibility in matters of foreign policy, another long-time strength of the GOP, has been seriously damaged by America's involvement in Iraq following the removal of Saddam Hussein. Few could argue--none reasonably--that removing Saddam Hussein from power was a bad thing, both for the United States or the world. Sadly, fewer still could reasonably argue that the aftermath of Hussein's removal has been handled effectively. Even Republican stalwarts like Mitt Romney, former Bush administration Secretary of State Colin Powell, Senator Chuck Hagel, and Senator John McCain have all been sharply critical of the Bush Administration's management of the conflict after toppling the Hussein regime. The hit-'em-hard-and-leave strategy that has been so successful for Republican administrations in the past was inexplicably abandoned by George W. Bush, and now Republicans, and the country as a whole, are paying the price.

Domestic Social Policy

Domestic social policy has never been the arena of greatest popularity for the Republican party, and the Republicans have lost ground big time in the first decade of the 21st century. Conservative fiscal policy and hawkish foreign policy will always draw the ire of the political left. That is to be expected. It is on social issues, however, where one is likely to find the greatest point of contention with, and within, the GOP.


Both parties have done their fair share of kowtowing to religious groups. This is understandable, as the faithful (of one stripe or another) still constitute the majority of the American populace. They have large, powerful lobbies, and contribute an obscene amount of money to the campaigns of candidates willing to conform their votes to their (usually Christian) religious beliefs. The religious contingent has become such a large part of the Republican constituent base, and the party itself so inextricably linked with them, that in the eyes of many, the party itself has become indistinguishable from, and synonymous with, fundamentalist Christian views.


George W. Bush took a leading role here, placing his religious views front and center, even at the price of curtailing civil rights, as in his call for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, or obstructing potentially life-saving medical advancement, as in the case of his opposition to embryonic stem cell research. He pledged to appoint "common-sense judges who understand that our rights were derived from God," and declared that the basis of his foreign policy was God's desire to see everyone live in freedom. (Why God had to rely on America for this rather than making it happen Himself—being God and all—is a mystery for another time.) Bush openly allowed his Bronze Age Christian philosophy to inform his leadership decisions, believing that he was on a mission from God to free Iraq. Congressional Republicans made little substantial effort to rein him in, and this has damaged the party severely. After all, how can people believe you are being objective in your criticism of the opposition if you're unable or unwilling to call shenanigans on one of your own?

Health Care Reform

Ironically, one of the few areas where even liberals are hard pressed to find fault with George W. Bush is in health care reform. Bush significantly expanded America's efforts in the global fight against AIDS, doubled federal funding for community health centers, and pushed through a huge prescription drug benefit for those on Medicare. Congressional Republicans opposed Bush on these and other proposed measures, but that wasn't your biggest mistake. Your biggest mistake was your failure to seize this golden opportunity to put forth Republican-authored health care reform legislation and get it passed. You could have taken on the very issues you thundered about during this more recent health care debate, putting together a bill that addressed government waste, over-regulation, lack of choices for individuals and small businesses, and badly needed tort reform. Such groundbreaking legislative reform, based on conservative ideals, would have averted the current crisis before it started. You didn't do this when you had the chance, and the American people are now saddled with an enormous expansion of government as a result.

The 2008 Election

The 2008 elections were another lackluster (to put it politely) performance for the Republican party. Senator John McCain was a borderline candidate chosen out of a primary lineup of borderline candidates. Republicans were riding on his credentials as a war hero, ignoring some of his glaring shortcomings. As a statesman, he was not a diplomat. He was labeled with the oft-used "maverick" title because of his tendency toward antagonism and dispute with members of his own party. His temper tantrums were almost legend, and he was observed in many well-publicized blow-ups with fellow congressmen, staffers, reporters, and even voters. It was hard to get past the feeling that just under the smiling surface lay a really angry guy. His campaign followed suit, employing--like Republican campaigns before it going back to Bush, Sr.--an increasingly negative tone. I think this turned a lot of voters off. Ronald Reagan's approach was to 'kill 'em with kindness." No matter where the debate went, or how reporters or others tried to bait him, he was always friendly and cordial, and never lost his sense of humor. We could use a lot more of that in politics today.

Sarah Palin

If presidential candidate John McCain didn't turn voters off, his choice of running mate did. McCain's own staff couldn't decide, in the words of an anonymous McCain aide, whether Sarah Palin was "someone who lacks knowledge, [or] someone who is incompetent," making voters hard pressed to make the same distinction. In interviews during the campaign, and in subsequent months, it began to look like both might be true. What was abundantly clear to all was that she had been chosen to broaden the McCain campaign's appeal to "middle America" and the religious right--one which ultimately backfired. Whether they watched her on YouTube being saved from 'witchcraft' or stumbling incoherently with Katie Couric, or read about her asking the local librarian if she'd be okay with censoring or removing certain 'objectionable' books, much of the electorate found that they'd rather not have Sarah Palin "a heartbeat away from the presidency." For myself, the selection of Sarah Palin seemed to signal that the GOP just wasn't taking thee race seriously, and I don't think I was alone.


The Run-up, The Big Vote and The Aftermath


Your performance leading up to, during, and after the final health care vote has been less than stellar (again, putting it politely). You railed and thundered against Obama's health care reform proposals, and against Obama himself. This is not to say that you were wrong on any particular point, but, as any five-star chef will tell you, presentation is a very important part of the dish. Your presentation for the health care battle was perfect... if you had wanted it to pass.


You came off as a bunch of angry, bitter, old white men who were being obstructionist because you were angry with Obama for winning the election. Sure, that wasn't the intent, but I'm not talking intent here, I'm talking about perception, and that's what it looked like. Your anti-Obama fervor almost exactly mirrored the bitter 'Bush-hate' we saw during his presidency, and continues to. Since Reagan, one of the great Republican strengths has been the ability to stay 'on message,' meeting the emotionalism of the left with reason and fact; arguing the issues, not the people. The Great Communicator would have hidden his head in shame at South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson's "you lie!" exclamation during the President's health care address. That just wasn't the way Reagan worked, and it's not the way the party should, either. When you are reduced to insult and rhetoric, the electorate becomes deaf to your message. This understanding has worked in Republicans' favor for a long time, and now failing to heed that lesson has bitten you, and us, right in the ass.


The association with the Tea Party movement didn't help. The movement that started as a legitimate grass-roots protest over skyrocketing taxes and the out-of-control, entitled, casual tax-and-spend behavior of D.C. politicians seemed to devolve before our eyes. As time went on, and—again—when Sarah Palin became involved, the Tea Partiers came to look less and less like a serious conservative organization, like the Heritage Foundation, and more like a loud, ignorant, disorganized 'right-wing mob'. Seeing people on television screaming slogans and donning t-shirts proclaiming Barack Obama to be a Socialist, Communist, Marxist, Muslim terrorist, Hitler, or the anti-Christ did not bolster the conservative argument for legitimate, targeted, reasonable health care reform. It made clowns and parodies of us all.


What I didn't hear a great deal of from Republicans during the debate, save for a few isolated cases on talk radio, was a counter-proposal. The health care system has needed overhauling for year. "Obamacare" may be a horribly flawed piece of legislation, but Democrats deserve credit for at least trying to address the issue. The move that Republicans should have made here was to assemble their own ideas into a coherent piece of competing legislation, submit it to the floor, and take the case for it directly to the American people. Constantly railing against any idea or plan causes reasonable people to ask, "okay, so what is your idea to fix this?" The worst response to that question is silence. The debate can't just be about why the other guy's ideas are bad, it has to be about why your ideas are good. That was noticeably lacking here.


When Republicans compete on ideas rather than ideologies, they win. The word 'Socialism' was bandied about so much that—even when it could be legitimately applied to some parts of this legislation—it became a sort of punchline for the opposition. Tone down the argument against 'Obamacare,' and get people fired up about 'Republicare.' Staying positive about your own message projects confidence and reason; staying negative about the opposition's message—and the opposition itself—reflects paranoia, fear, and bitterness. People become energized by the former, and, as we just learned again, do not cleave to the latter. It's all about the calm, assertive energy. Don't you people watch Cesar Millan, the "Dog Whisperer"?!


The Future


The lessons here are clear. Stay positive and on message. Avoid hostility, negativity, and vitriol. Don't fight, compete. Battles are not won by adhering to a siege mentality or by catering to any frenzied mob, they are won with good ideas, positive promotion and thoughtful responses.


Adhere to the core values of conservatism—particularly the promotion of strong defense, lower taxation, smaller government, individual liberty and responsible spending. We have far more important things on our plate to deal with than abortion and gay marriage. The attempts to deny these freedoms are antithetical to the conservative ideal of keeping government out of citizen's lives to the greatest degree possible. A nanny state from the right is just as bad as one from the left. Liberty, security and prosperity should dictate Republican policy, not religion.


Always keep in mind that you are competing for a huge middle ground. Extremism on both sides turns people off. Avoid pandering to any one segment of the base. The religious fundamentalists are not going to vote Democrat if you go against them once in a while.


Look ahead now to the future, rather than dwelling on the past. 'Obamacare' is a reality now, and the debate is in the past. No good can come from focusing everyone's attention on a battle you've lost. If the next couple of elections really favor Republicans, then there may be some future opportunity to repeal, scale back, or at least tweak this legislation, but that's tomorrow. There are many other battles to be fought between now and then. As a party and as a country, we cannot afford to lose the debates over immigration reform, education reform, and economic recovery. You must shift your focus and your strategy drastically to win these contests, rebuild your credibility and regain the trust and respect of the electorate.

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