"We need to bring new language to this debate," Republican message man Alex Castellanos wrote in a memo to fellow GOP strategists this month. "If we paint the house the same color, no one will notice anything has changed: We will still be the same, outdated Republicans who have no new ideas and oppose everything."
Castellanos, a consultant to the Republican National Committee, offered poll-tested language that the party could use to kill President Obama's health-care legislation in Congress. "If we slow this sausage-making process down, we can defeat it," he reasoned.
RNC Chairman Michael Steele must have liked what he read. When he gave a speech at the National Press Club on Monday, he all but read aloud from Castellanos's memo.
"Slow down, Mr. President: We can't afford to get health care wrong," said the memo.
"Slow down, Mr. President: We can't afford to get health care wrong," said the chairman.
Memo: "The old, top-down Washington-centered system the Democrats propose will empower Washington to restrict the cures and treatments your doctor can prescribe for you."
Steele: "The old top-down Washington-centered system the Democrats propose is designed to grow Washington's power to restrict the cures and treatments your doctor can prescribe for you."
Memo: "President Obama is experimenting with America, too much, too soon, and too fast."
Steele: "The Barack Obama experiment with America is a risk our country can't afford -- it's too much, too fast, too soon."
In the back of the room sat the ventriloquist, admiring his work. Castellanos used the word "experiment" six times to criticize Obama's plan; Steele, the eager pupil, used it 30. Only one thing would have made the performance more impressive: if Castellanos had been able to drink a glass of water while Steele was talking.
Alas for the party boss, the memo did not prepare him for the question-and-answer period.
Does Steele favor requiring everybody to have health coverage? "I don't do policy," he replied.
Why didn't Republicans deal with health-care reform when they were in charge? "There has been just a general lack of focus on this issue," he said.
Led by Steele, the Republicans are making no secret of their aims: kill health reform this year, leaving the millions of uninsured to wait for another day and another proposal. And one way to do that is to make it appear that the Democrats are heedlessly hurrying. "The president is rushing this experiment through Congress so fast, so soon," Steele reasoned, revisiting his "too much, too fast, too soon" formulation four times in his speech.
On its face, the accusation that the Democrats are moving too quickly seems difficult to maintain. For 16 years they've been laboring to expand health insurance, and proposals have been grinding their way through five congressional committees. Then there's the small detail that Obama and the Democrats made health-care reform a central component of last year's election, which they won resoundingly. "Yes, we lost the last election, so that means we shut up?" Steele said with a laugh when the question was put to him Monday.
The audience was sparse -- about 20 of 100 seats full for his morning speech -- but Steele paid no mind to this slight and stared straight into the cameras. He cut an elegant figure: three of four buttons buttoned on his suit coat, a perfect half-inch of white handkerchief peeking out of his breast pocket, a blue shirt with a white collar and big gold cufflinks on his monogrammed cuffs.
The chairman referred carefully to his text as he delivered his broadsides: "big government wish list . . . urge to splurge . . . shove this bill through . . . Obama-Pelosi-Reid-Waxman cabal . . . reckless . . . unprecedented intrusion." After more than 20 minutes of this, Steele devoted a few minutes to a Republican alternative: online posting of prices and outcomes for tests and procedures; a single, simplified billing form; paperless health-care systems; preventive care; portability of health coverage between jobs. He neglected to mention the awkward detail that all of these are included, in some form, in the Democrats' health-care legislation -- which he labeled socialist.
The chairman did better sticking to the words of Castellanos, who modestly described his role as that of a horse driven by Steele.
"We are excited to join the growing number of Americans supporting the patient-centered health-care reform movement," said the memo, "with patients and doctors in control."
"Republicans stand with the growing number of Americans supporting the patient-centered health-care reform movement," said the chairman, "with patients and doctors in control."
"This is 20 percent of our economy," said the memo. "This is one-sixth of our economy," said the chairman.
"If we screw this up, it could last for generations," said the memo. "If we screw this up, it could last a generation," said the chairman.
"This should scare the living daylights out of all of us," said the memo. "All of us should be scared to death," said the chairman.
As a voice-throwing act, Castellanos and Steele were quite a duo. But if Castellanos is the ventriloquist, what does that make Steele?