Have you heard about the law proposed in South Dakota? It requires everyone over the age of 21 to purchase a firearm "suitable to their temperament, physical capacity, and personal preference" and "sufficient to provide for their ordinary self-defense." Give credit to the five Republicans sponsoring the bill for having a sense of humor and a flair for marketing. "Do I or the other cosponsors believe that the state of South Dakota can require citizens to buy firearms? Of course not," state Rep. Hal Wick told the Argus Leader. "But at the same time, we do not believe the federal government can order every citizen to buy health insurance."
Yes, the Great Healthcare Battle marches inexorably on. The Democrats' single-minded push to pass the landmark law exacted a toll in both presidential approval points and House seats. Voters concerned with a faltering economy wondered why the president and Congress were fixated on the topic. But now the GOP seems intent on a rematch, oblivious to the fact that, on offense now, they are in danger of falling into the same blinkered state that entrapped the Democrats. Hence the House's repeal vote, the failed repeal push in the Senate, and last week's decision by a federal judge in Florida that the individual mandate is unconstitutional, making the entire law void.
Like the Democrats before them, the GOP has grown so used to winning the issue—with polls consistently registering public opposition to the reform law—that they seem blind to shifting public sentiment. While a January 16 AP-GfK poll found Americans virtually evenly divided on the healthcare law (40 to 41 against), only 26 percent favored a straight repeal. By contrast, 43 percent want to revise the law so that it "does more to change the healthcare system." A January 18 Washington Post-ABC News poll found the law unpopular (50 percent disapproving), but one quarter of the critics opposed it for not going far enough. So it's no surprise that less than 1 in 5 Americans favored a straight repeal. Likewise, a January 20 Pew Research poll found that nearly as many people want to expand the law (35 percent) as want to repeal it (37 percent).
And in a way, the Florida court ruling puts the GOP into even more of a bind. Unable to repeal the law in whole, Republicans had planned to chip away at it, starting with the widely disliked universal mandate. But as my colleague Peter Roff points out on U.S. News's Thomas Jefferson Street blog, since Judge Roger Vinson used the individual mandate as the basis for voiding the entire law, repealing that provision would run the risk of undercutting his decision. It's all or nothing for them now.
The Pew poll also ranked the public's policy priorities. Revising the healthcare law was ninth, with 56 percent describing it as a "top priority." Americans' top two priorities were the economy at 87 percent and jobs at 84 percent. The GOP may have better things to do, but the president and his party—still licking their shellacked wounds—have gotten the message. [See a slide show of 10 ways the GOP can take down Obamacare.]
And on the jobs front, the GOP seems just as intent on overplaying its hand in service of its base. The party has become bewitched by economic fundamentalists who insist there is no governmental role in job creation beyond cutting spending. [See the 10 best cities to find a job.]
President Obama made a forceful case in his State of the Union address for what he called "investment"—spending on things like infrastructure and education that both plainly promote and propel the private economy but also are uniquely within the purview of government. But while Obama "proposed cuts to things I care deeply about," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell snickered that "investment, as you know, is a Latin term for Washington spending." Obama came across as an adult willing to prioritize in a way familiar to any family, differentiating between what is necessary and what is merely desirable. McConnell and the GOP sounded like inflexible ideologues. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]
The Republicans perhaps envision a rehash of the stimulus fight, where they successfully painted the Democrats as profligate spenders. But there is again a difference between being on offense and being on defense. When you're trying to pass something, like a mammoth spending bill, you invariably present any number of targets from which the opposition can cherry-pick egregious examples. While Obama may have made a case for new spending, Republican control of the House meant that he was really laying out the lines for a defense against the coming GOP cutting frenzy. McConnell has been around long enough to remember the last time a Democratic president got to so define a spending fight. Bill Clinton brought the so-called 1994 Republican Revolution to a crashing halt by highlighting Republican slashing of popular programs. [See editorial cartoons about the GOP.]
Despite GOP talking points, the public hasn't developed much more of a taste for spending cuts in specific programs. According to a January 26 Gallup poll, Americans oppose cuts to the arts and sciences by 46 to 52 percent and cuts to anti-poverty programs by 39 to 55. The area they least want to see touched? Only 32 percent support pruning education while 67 percent oppose such a move.
House Democrats launched the first salvo last week—radio ads, calls, and E-mails—targeting 19 GOPers, 17 in districts Obama carried in 2008. The Republicans support "a plan in Congress that would cut education by 40 percent," one ad says. "And [the GOP] plan would cut science and technology research by 40 percent, too. Research and development is how we get the new products that create new jobs."
By all means, GOP, please stay focused on healthcare repeal and spending cuts.