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The GOP Health Care Debacle

Republicans and health care reform
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By late afternoon, the debate was just for show. The outcome was a foregone conclusion after the White House clinched an agreement with Michigan's Bart Stupak earlier in the day. Still, the GOP was intent on getting in its last licks during the general debate. And they made the best of the opportunity.

So we got to see the nation's Republican congressional cohort, one by one, rise to vent. And vent they did. They attacked backroom deals and creeping collectivism. They decried one-party diktat. They predicted companies would go bust. They complained of being shut out of the process. They warned of lost freedoms. Clearly, they were not happy campers. A sampler:

  • Dave Camp of Michigan said that Congress was paving the way for federal bureaucrats to come between Americans and their doctors.
  • Kevin Brady of Texas predicted rationing was now in store.
  • John Linder of Georgia said the legislation would destroy healthcare for the vast majority of citizens.
  •  Devin Nunes of California slammed Democrats for laying the cornerstone for "socialism" and "totalitarianism."

I was listening to the debate while packing boxes and that last bon mot stopped me in my tracks. Did I hear that right? Totalitarianism? So I rewound my DVR and there it was. Totalitarianism. I understand Nancy Pelosi annoys the hell out of the GOP but she's not exactly the second coming of Trotsky (naturally, in chartreuse red).

This is where the GOP starts to look, well, weird. In defeat. And there was little dispute that the Republican Party had suffered one of its biggest setbacks in years. Even a congenital Republican cheerleader like National Review's Mark Steyn offered a backhand acknowledgment of the magnitude of the moment. "If Barack Obama does nothing else in his term in office, this will make him one of the most consequential presidents in history." Steyn wrote on Sunday. But rhetorical excess has been a recurring theme throughout the year-long battle to overhaul health care and with one GOP speaker after another railing about the advent of "socialism" coming to our shores, Republicans came close to sounding like kooks (if not the amen corner for Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity.)

When the history of this chapter gets written, people will ask whether the GOP's been getting the politics wrong from the get-go. Egged on by ideological hardliner South Carolina's Jim DeMint - who urged the party to turn health care into President Obama's =http:="">"Waterloo" -  the party bet the house on its ability to block Democratic legislation. That turned out to be a bad bet.

The latest meme propagated by Republicans is that supposed "outrage" stirred up by the bill will lead to an electoral route in November's midterm elections. History suggests that the party out of power should pick up seats in an off-year election. But confident predictions of victory are premature. In a blog post that's sure to irritate some of his conservative colleagues, David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, notes that while "legislative majorities come and go" this bill is permanent. "A win in November is very poor compensation for this debacle now." (Also see Frum's video post-mortem.) =http:>

Obviously, Frum's is a minority opinion within the party as the ideological hardliners remain in charge. But with  the elections eight months away, Republican victory is hardly guaranteed - especially if the economy continues to improve.  Heading into the elections, President Obama will be sure to remind voters that Republicans also refused to support the Mr. Obama when he was trying to convince Congress to pass a stimulus bill. At the time, the GOP predicted it would hasten the economy's collapse. Turns out that GDP has registered increases the last three quarters.

Will any of this force the GOP to do a course correction? Probably not. The movement is convinced that it's on the right side of history. With the right wing of the party in control - even if Sarah Palin decides to pack it in to pursue a fitting career as a reality television star - the ideologues will continue to pound away at the Democrats, accusing them of ruining the economy by recasting the United States as a European social democracy. =http:>

In a response to Frum, Cornell Law professor and conservative activist  William Jacobson wasn't buying the idea that the vote's outcome was a convincing reason for party introspection. The opposite was true, he argued.

"Only through voter resistance in Virginia, New Jersey and particularly Massachusetts, through hundreds of town halls, through vigorous exposure of the Democrats' plans for single payer, through countless phone calls and e-mails, and through legislative vigilance were numerous even more damaging provisions stripped out. If we had followed Frum's strategy, we would be even worse off, and we would own the monstrosity known as Obamacare."

That's the narrative we'll likely hear as the elections approach. But with the prospect of 32 million more Americans covered by insurance, the Democrats can claim to have made good on Teddy Roosevelt's challenge to the country more than a century ago. Unable to prevent the passage of one of the most far-reaching pieces of progressive legislation in decades, Republicans wake up on Monday facing a political shambles.

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