October 2, 2013

“Plan beats no plan.”

That was Tim Geithner’s political axiom in internal White House debates as the president’s team worked to mend the financial meltdown. Today his slogan does duty nicely as a preview of the public’s judgment on the shocking Republican choice to shut down the government over Obamacare.

Communications strategy in politics generally involves people in power crafting messages for less knowledgeable people (the press) to transmit to even less knowledgeable people (voters). (If you doubt this, have a look at the brilliant man-on-the-street segment Jimmy Kimmel did asking people whether they prefer “Obamacare” or “The Affordable Care Act.”). The idea in these messaging wars is to convey “values” that resonate with the public and trump your opponent’s.

Consider the current showdown in this context. President Obama championed a plan through which government will spend hundreds of billions of dollars to help millions of low- and middle-income Americans buy decent private health coverage. As can never be said often enough, Obama’s plan also happens to have been based on a sensible Republican design that Mitt Romney enacted successfully in Massachusetts.

Republicans have no plan — literally, nothing serious whatsoever — to help more than a handful of the roughly 50 million uninsured Americans get such coverage. Yes, the GOP offers little talking points around the edges so that its team has something to say. But all of its “ideas” — from group purchasing for small business to buying coverage across state lines — are pseudo-plans. Nothing the Republican leadership has offered reaches more than 3 million people.

Once you understand this, you understand how deeply disingenuous Republican messaging has been. House Speaker John Boehner delivered a sound bite Monday night: “We think there ought to be basic fairness for all Americans under Obamacare.” That’s why the GOP wouldn’t budge.

Is Boehner kidding? Is that all they have? By “fairness” Boehner means the law’s individual mandate should be delayed for a year, just like the employer mandate has been put off. To save people from “the harms” of Obamacare, in Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Tex.) irritating collegiate debate lingo. Democrats are on the side of big business, you see, while the GOP is fighting for the little guy.

Now, to say that this message is an insult to our intelligence isn’t the end of the discussion, because no one ever lost a political fight by insulting the American public’s intelligence.

But that Republicans are staking the shutdown on this thin gruel is revealing. They’re not saying, “we have a better plan to help Americans achieve health security.” They can’t say that, because the president already enacted the Republican plan. Instead, they’re ginning up a phony “fairness” issue and trying to make it sound real.

But the employer mandate is a sideshow in Obamacare. It’s there for one reason: to keep employer money in the game to reduce the cost on public budgets of extending health-care coverage. Ending the employer role in health-care coverage and shifting these costs to public ledgers would be economically rational — better both for citizens and for businesses. Politically, however, the White House judged this to be untenable.

So let’s stipulate that over time the employer mandate should be scrapped. The individual mandate, by contrast — the “unfairness” the GOP now bemoans — is essential. As conservatives taught us via Romneycare, you can’t move toward universal coverage with private health-insurance plans without requiring everyone to be in the insurance pool (and also without subsidizing folks who need help buying coverage). Without a mandate and subsidies, younger, poorer and healthier folks opt out, making rates spiral. This is Insurance 101.

Trying to equate these mandates as a “fairness” issue is to assume the press and the public are idiots. Crafting a message that works only if people are idiots is a grim way to do politics — and deeply cynical. Republicans hardly have a monopoly on cynical political tactics, but to use cynicism in the service of denying basic health security to millions is morally unattractive, to put it mildly. Not something you want to tell the kids about.

“What did you do today, Daddy?” asks the son of one of these House Republicans in my imagination.

‘Hey, Junior, I twisted truth and logic to make sure millions of poor American workers can still go broke if someone in their family gets seriously ill. . . . Junior, why are you looking at me like that?”

John Boehner may look tanned and rested, but the suave speaker has a Dorian Gray problem. Somewhere in the attic, his likeness in a painting is rotting.

There’s a wonderful poster from World War II in which Churchill exhorts British citizens to “Deserve Victory.”

In this clash, Democrats do.

Read more from Matt Miller’s archive or follow him on Twitter.