Slamming Obamacare Isn't Enough

Voters need to hear that Republicans have real ideas.

Interest rates on federal student loans will double on July 1 if Congress doesn’t find a solution, but proposals are a mixed bag for borrowers.

A strategy that keeps the heat on Obamacare can only work for so long.

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There are five minutes left in the game. Your team leads by less than a touchdown. Do you get conservative, go with handoffs into the line and hope your defense can come through? Or do you take a few risks and try to run out the clock without ever giving the other team the ball back?

Nine months from Election Day 2014, that’s basically the question Republicans are facing. They have a lead, so to speak. And they have to figure out how to close out the victory without making mistakes that give away the game.

They could run the ball into the line – keep the heat on Obamacare, make Democrats defend their votes and the program’s multiple simultaneous calamities. Or they could try to take a few chances, work to move some legislation that addresses concerns the American people have and show they would be ready to govern with fresh ideas from Day One.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Obamacare.]

It’s not an easy question. The all-slam-Obamacare-all-the-time strategy is working, up to a point. President Obama’s poll numbers are at all-time lows. Candidates are shunning him on the campaign trail and trying to distance themselves from his signature legislation. Democrats have all but given up on retaking the majority in the House of Representatives and are concentrating their resources on defending five vulnerable incumbents in the Senate and holding the open seats in Iowa and Michigan. Plus, as Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., an ally of Speaker John Boehner, said the other day, “In the House, we’ve got 30 guys who don’t want to support anything, ever, unless it balances the budget next year.”

But there is reason to believe Republicans are not yet in position to run out the clock – or, more accurately, that they stand to forego the chance to take over the Senate if they don’t come up with something besides flogging Obamacare between now and November.

They and their allies have spent big to weaken Sens. Kay Hagan in North Carolina and Mary Landrieu in Louisiana. But no viable Republican options have emerged in either state, and Charlie Cook, the Louisiana native and polling guru, still lists both races as “Lean Democrat.” The open seat in Iowa looks increasingly as if it will go to Rep. Bruce Braley, a Democrat, and Mark Begich in Alaska also is looking safer.

Moreover, Obamacare may not pack the electoral punch many Republicans now expect. Nearly two-thirds of Americans say the law hasn’t affected them at all, and more favor fixing it than repealing it, as House Republicans have voted more than 40 times to do.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

At some point in the next nine months, voters are going to say, “OK, Obamacare is bad. It needs some attention from Congress. We get it. What else can you do to help me?”

And right now, it is Democrats who have the more complete list. They would raise the minimum wage, of course. They would press their “war on women” meme. They would call, as President Obama did on Thursday, for more spending on social programs. As Romina Boccia, who focuses on federal spending at the Heritage Foundation, has pointed out, there is no debt limit right now to constrain the Democrats’ free candy machine. And the prospect of spending our children into penury never has bothered them.

Low-information voters turn out for presidential elections, but most of those who take part in midterms are aware. They need to hear Republicans have a plan. They want many of the objectives of Obamacare addressed one way or the other – pre-existing conditions, cost, access, etc.

Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Richard Burr, R-N.C., have made some progress on this front. Those 30 guys Nunes talks about need to find a way to like – if not love – some aspect of some of these plans. This is no time to get bogged down in minutia. It is time to embrace bold principles, win an election and sort out the details later.

Jobs. College affordability. Tax reform. Energy. Transportation. Republicans largely agree on broad approaches for all these areas. Refine the differences. Put forward a blueprint. Take a chance on a forward pass. It may stop the clock. Democrats may poke holes in some of the initiatives. But it will show Republicans are thinking about the problems Americans face and offering real solutions.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Nunes also says, “It’s over, it’s finished after the debt ceiling,” meaning it’s unlikely Congress will pass any significant legislation the rest of this year.

But it’s not important that legislation passes. It’s important that Republicans present ideas to address problems and that – given the fiasco that is Obamacare – voters will be suspicious of the big-government alternatives offered by Democrats and be willing to give those ideas a chance.

Just a short forward pass in some direction – any direction – is all it takes. Are Republicans prepared to take that risk? Their electoral future probably depends on it.