What is the President likely to say in his big speech to Congress on health care and how should Republicans respond to him?
First, its easy to anticipate the theme and tone of President Obamas remarks. He will call for a new spirit of unity and bipartisanship (just as he did in the campaign) and lament the bitterness and divisions roiling the nation when all agree on general goals for health care reform: insuring the uninsured, while making insurance more secure and affordable for those who already have it. He will stigmatize the enemies of reform as political hacks or special interests, and call upon the people to rise above the fear-mongers and demagogues and to embrace reform with hope and confidence. Hell certainly invoke the memory of his fallen friend, the Lion of the Senate, Ted Kennedy, and call for all Americans to go forward in his spirit. Senator Kennedy combined visionary idealism with practical ability to work across the aisle and to make deals in the public interest. The President might even paraphrase the late Senators brother, President Kennedy, suggesting that we should never compromise out of fear, but we should never fear to compromise. In any event, for those with the stomach to watch it, the speech will surely spend lots of time talking about bridging gaps and joining hands and singing kum-ba-ya, even while the President knows theres no chance Republicans will feel swayed by his words. Thats not the point of his address, of course. The point is to make those Republicans look bad when they refuse to bridge gaps and join hands and sing kum-ba-ya.
So what should the GOP say to counteract this line of attack?
With the President reportedly prepared to lay out his non-negotiables on health care reform, the Republicans should enumerate non-negotiable positions of their ownand make it clear that everything else can be discussed and finessed. The key red-lines for conservatives should include:
1) First, and most importantly, health care reform must add nothing not one penny to the already crushing and disastrous federal deficit. With more than nine-trillion dollars in additional debt already projected over the next ten years, responsible public servants should concentrate all their efforts on ways to save money and to cut the budget. They must not under any circumstances enact reforms that would cost money and bloat the budget.
2) The GOP should reject any legislation that doesnt include malpractice insurance reform. No other change under discussion could lower medical costs as certainly and substantially as reducing the threat of junk lawsuits and thereby bringing down the devastating cost of malpractice insurance and defensive medicine. Everyone involved in the health care system is expected to sacrifice and cooperate in some way for the sake of reform: doctors, hospitals, insurance companies, even the American taxpayer. Trial lawyers shouldnt be the only participants in the medical industry exempted from these readjustments, especially when their addiction to jackpot justice and big contingency fees cripples health care providers by requiring unnecessary procedures (at tremendous and needless cost) and making malpractice insurance premiums a major expense for all medical professionals.
3) The Obama reforms must make no attempt to pay for their costs by cutting the funding of Medicare; in fact, any discussion of Medicare and its problems should be kept entirely separate from the general topic of health insurance reform. Not only would reduced Medicare funding lead inevitably to reduced availability of care for seniors, but it would kill the chance of saving Medicare later. Even if the President succeeds in shaving billions from the Medicare budget without weakening the protection of seniors (an unlikely eventuality), any effort to realize those savings now and use them to pay for Obamacare will make saving Medicare an even more nightmarish process in the future. The system is supposed to go bankrupt in 2017-18. Any available savings must be used to save that system, on which nearly all seniors rely. Those funds should not be reassigned to Obamacare, leaving Medicare with even less chance of ever putting its fiscal house in order.
4) The Obama health reforms must provide no federal funding for abortions or for the purchase of health insurance for illegal immigrants. The President says he agrees with these propositions, and repeatedly denies that he wants funding for either abortion or illegals. It should therefore be easy for him to bridge gaps, join hands, sing kum-ba-ya and so forth, regarding two of the true hot button issues in this debate, especially since conservatives fear Mr. Obama will go back on his word unless hes specific and clear on these explosive controversies. Republicans should challenge the President to make the kind of clear-cut commitment that leaves no wiggle room for equivocation or reconsideration.
The essential non-negotiables listed above represent more than a political ploy or a legislative tactic: they mostly reflect sentiments the President himself has expressed. If Obama is serious about bi-partisanship, let him embrace these reasonable demands. The chances are overwhelming that hell refuse to do so (particularly regarding malpractice reform) because he doesnt want to hand Republicans a political victory while attempting to seize one for himself. In any event, if the GOP approaches the Presidents speech in a constructive and clearly-articulated manner there will be less chance that Obama can credibly blame them for the failure of health care reform if it fails, and less chance that he can claim exclusive credit for health care reform if it passes. A Republican position that makes clear general support for the idea of reform, and specific requirements for the changes they will support, will put the President in a dilemma: either he incorporates GOP ideas and thereby shares some of the praise for passage, or rejects those notions and takes some of the blame for failure, or else simply ignores the conservative position (the most likely outcome) and blows away all pretense that he represents a bipartisan, unifying figure in our politics.
Above all, Republicans should stress the need to take time with the process of reform: if President Obama really wants to bring the country together, he cant insist on ramming health insurance reform through a partisan Democratic Congress without negotiation, discussion, perspective, or delay. If he wants to negotiate, whats the all-fired hurry? The only possible justification for his artificial sense of urgency is a fear that the American people will wake up to the consequences of his proposals (many already have) and rise in opposition. For changes that will impact this Republic forever, why shouldnt our elected representatives take a few extra months to consider the long-term impact of their decisions?
On Wednesday night, the President will ask the American people to come together and calm down. The Republicans should insist that the only way to calm down is to slow down authorizing more, not less discussion of legislation that will shape the future of every American.