Capitol Idea: For Democrats It Will Be Either Kill, or be Killed

Having finally passed health care reform, the worst mistake Democrats now could make is to try to simply pivot to “all jobs, all the time” in a feeble hope that the health care legislation will be so far back in the nation’s rearview mirror by the election this fall as to change the subject.

The Republicans aren’t going to let that happen, and that will become the surest route to John Boehner being handed the speaker’s gavel next year.

It will be nearly as bad for Democrats to rely solely on President Obama running around the country in a “Gee, whiz, ain’t health care reform grand?” cheerleading road show to try to dissipate all of that tea party anger out there.

Make no mistake: health care reform is grand, and it will offer important, life-changing help and hope to millions of Americans who had none before the House passed its bill on Sunday. And the president and the Democrats in Congress who helped him get this reform enacted into law are right to take their good news to the country.

But simply as a crass political matter, all the positive sincerity the Democrats can muster between now and November alone won’t save them when it comes to the 2010 midterms.

Health care reform will be a weapon in this year’s election. The Republicans, unshackled as they are now from even the pretense of trying to legislate, will guarantee that. They’ve already shown they are willing to mislead and misrepresent legislation that incorporated, as Nancy Pelosi said, more than 100 Republican amendments. The only question is: Which side of the club will Democrats find themselves on?

Salivating at the chance to rerun 1994, Republicans want to hold that bludgeon in a tight death grip to pummel Pelosi, Harry Reid and every other Democrat in Congress fiercely about the head every day between now and Election day.

(Incidentally, I now can see another reason why Democrats should have passed this bill sooner, so that Boehner would have been eligible for an Oscar for his performance prior to the vote. He deserves one just for opening with the line that he came to the House floor with a “sad and heavy heart,” when in truth, he could barely contain the glee he felt at potentially becoming speaker next year.)

It doesn’t take much for anyone who’s been around Washington long enough to already imagine the attack ads the Republicans and their allies could gin up against the Democrats, complete with negative, grainy images and a narrator describing reform in ominous tones.

Add to that the enormous $50-million effort that the slavishly pro-business, anti-regulation U.S. Chamber of Commerce has promised to throw against Democrats –- not to mention any heightened impact from the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United decision that unleashes corporate election spending –- and you begin to see just how vicious and relentless the attacks on Democrats quickly could become.

That’s why Democrats need to turn health care around on the GOP. It needs to be Democrats who hammer Republicans endlessly on the issue, not the other way around.

Democrats, and the major allies who supported reform — the big labor unions, and AARP, in particular — need to pony up to begin putting attack ads on the air that go after the GOP in no uncertain terms. AARP, in particular, should be active in this fight.

The retiree lobby has long promised to support those lawmakers in favor of reform, and call to account those who did not. Given that AARP is influential and well-funded, that accountability for reform opponents ought to be more consequential than merely a black mark on a website or a complaint on a junk-mail postcard that no one realistically would pay attention to.

The ads Democrats and its allies produce ought to start by highlighting those aspects of reform that go into effect most quickly. But instead of explaining these benefits in positive terms, these ads should focus on real people and real situations.

These TV spots should describe in fairly negative terms the cruelty of Republicans for trying to harm their fellow Americans by attempting to deny this help, as well as portray them as recklessly and irresponsibly damaging the U.S. economy by their opposition to reform. These ads would not exercises in cool intellectualism; rather, they’d be direct appeals to the viewers’ raw emotional responses, designed to create and cement negative impressions of Republicans within the viewers.

The ad campaign I describe here would start ugly, and get only uglier as the year wears on.

Let me be clear: Suggesting such a course of attack fills me with no joy, and indeed, runs counter to my nature of consensus-building and comity.

But I do well remember the run-up to the 1994 election, in which Republicans and their allies ran endless ads that unfairly painted even sincerely bipartisan and middle-of-the-road Democrats as “ultra liberal” and “embarrassingly liberal.”

So I have a sense of what’s coming, and as this fall wears on, I expect worse. This time, Democrats ought to fight the battle from a position of strength, not weakness. As one former president might say, “Bring it on.”

The publisher of On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered government and Washington for more than a decade. Capitol Idea is his regular column from Washington.

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