Are Republicans losing their nerve on repeal?

By Marc A. Thiessen
Tuesday, April 13, 2010;

Almost immediately after Democrats rammed Obamacare through Congress, Republicans began promising to fight for its repeal. Reps. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Steve King of Iowa introduced repeal legislation in the House and Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and 15 co-sponsors followed suit with similar legislation in the Senate. House Minority Leader John Boehner declared: "This government takeover of health care is not what Americans asked for. . . .That is why Republicans are fighting to repeal it and start over with common-sense reforms." The Club for Growth launched a repeal pledge that has so far been signed by 67 lawmakers and 288 candidates. And the Weekly Standard ran a cover that screamed in bright red letters "REPEAL" and vowed the "Overthrow of Obamacare."

But today some Republicans are losing their nerve on repeal. Rep. Mark Kirk, who is running for the Senate in Illinois, signed the repeal pledge and even vowed to "lead the effort" for repeal, but has since backed off, declaring "I voted against it, but we lost." Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina , who is running for reelection, has said that "total repeal" is unlikely. And Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who is in charge of messaging for the Republican Senate leadership, says that instead of repeal, Republicans should promise "at least big changes" to the bill.

Not exactly a resounding battle cry.

Why are Republicans starting to cave? Speaking in Iowa City, President Obama taunted Republicans about the drive to repeal, daring them to "go for it." Obama told a cheering audience: "If they want to have that fight, we can have it. Because I don't believe the American people are going to put the insurance industry back in the driver's seat." And the Democratic National Committee launched radio ads against Kirk and other Republicans, declaring they are "vowing to repeal reform and put the insurance industry back in charge of your health care." Obama and the Democrats are betting that, while the bill may be unpopular, they can win in November by focusing on specific provisions. They will tell voters Republicans are working with the insurance industry to bring back discrimination for preexisting conditions, let insurers cancel your coverage retroactively if you get sick and restore lifetime limits that deny you care when you need it most.

This is the Democrats' best play, but Republicans need to recognize how weak the Democrats' hand really is. First, most of the benefits in the bill don't kick in until 2014 -- three election cycles from now. The charge that Republicans are "taking away your benefits" will hardly ring true for Americans who don't yet enjoy those benefits. Second, with all the backroom deals the Democrats cut to pass their bill, including with the pharmaceutical industry and insurance industry, it should be hard for them to argue that Republicans are the ones in bed with big business. Third, recent polls show that large majorities of Americans think the legislation will push the country further into debt, make the quality of their own care worse and increase their own health-care costs. There is no danger in pledging to repeal a bill that Americans believe will explode the deficit, lower the quality of care and increase care costs for many.

Finally, Democrats face a massive enthusiasm gap on health care. Polls show that supporters of Obamacare are lukewarm, while the opponents are vehement. Many see Obamacare as just one element of a larger campaign by the Democrats to transform our country in the image of Europe by dramatically expanding the size and reach of the federal government. They want Republicans to repeal those efforts, not simply tinker around the edges.

This is why Newt Gingrich -- who led the successful Republican takeover of Congress before -- told the Southern Republican Leadership Conference last week that Republicans should think even bigger, and pledge to repeal not just Obamacare but also the economic stimulus and any other big-government legislation enacted by what he calls Obama's "secular socialist machine." To those Republicans who say repeal is a false promise -- because even if Republicans win both houses of Congress, Obama will still veto any repeal legislation -- Gingrich offered a two-stage solution: Stage one, win control of Congress this fall and promise that the GOP will refuse to fund Obamacare. Stage two, take back the White House in the next election and commit that "a Republican president and a Republican Congress in February and March of 2013 will repeal every radical bill passed by this machine."

Gingrich cautions that the GOP must be the "Party of Yes" and explain how it would replace Democratic legislation with something better. He is right. But without a pledge to repeal Obamacare, that message will fail. If Republican leaders can't commit to repealing a radical health care scheme that the Wall Street Journal correctly called the "worst bill ever," they can hardly expect Americans to say "yes" to a GOP Congress in November.

Marc A. Thiessen, a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, writes a weekly column for The Post and is author of "Courting Disaster."

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