Ego check: In March Madness, big leads have a way of evaporating

Scott Stanzel Contributor
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In just over 220 days, voters will have their voices heard. For the second time in just six years, Americans may decide to change control of Congress. In a replay of 1994, they may do so because of an overreach by Democrats on the issue of health care.

Can Republicans come back from the political wilderness they found themselves in after the 2006 “thumpin’“? Yes, they can.

On Monday, longtime political prognosticator Stuart Rothenberg said “let’s be clear about what is developing: Obama and the Democratic Congressional leadership have dug themselves into a deep and dangerous political hole, and the only question right now seems to be the severity of the drubbing.”

Republicans shouldn’t be overconfident, however. In this season of March Madness, big leads have a funny way of evaporating. Beginning in the first moments after Nancy Pelosi marshaled just 85 percent of her caucus to ram through the massive health care plan, President Obama and other Democrats began claiming they were acting on the will of the people—completely disregarding the fact that poll after poll shows a solid majority of Americans firmly opposed to the ObamaCare plan. Democrats are busy trying to improve voters’ dim view of the new law by highlighting the popularly supported portions of the plan. In the last few days, the rhetoric of the Democrats has been laser-focused on the ban on denying coverage for preexisting conditions and the provision allowing adults up to age 26 to stay on the insurance plan of their parents. They’ve even falsely claimed their plan will provide tax relief, ignoring the fact that the $569 billion in new tax increases—including $52 billion in new taxes on employers—will create a devastating burden on the weakened economy.

With willing accomplices in the mainstream media who’ll happily help turn the Democrats’ biggest political blunder into a supposed victory, Republicans must be ready with a winning and compelling message.

Even though the approval rating of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid (11 percent and 8 percent respectively, in a new CBS News poll) ranks them comfortably at the top of the list of most disliked elected leaders of either party, Republicans can’t simply run ads demonically morphing their opponents into these Democrats. Voters still have distaste for all things Washington and the GOP brand is not something to crow about, yet.

As evidenced by the disproportionate news coverage of recent isolated intemperate and ill-advised name-calling by those opposed to the health care overhaul, Democrats will work hard to portray Republicans as scary radicals who can’t be trusted with power. That’s why Republicans need to be happy warriors who are attuned to voter needs and stand on the principle of limited, effective government.

Americans are perfectly willing to vote against incumbents this year. However, to achieve big victories this fall, Republicans must provide something for citizens to vote for. When it comes to health care, Republican leaders in Congress and GOP candidates across the country should spend the next seven months talking about how they plan to keep the few popular parts of the new law, while repealing the repugnant taxes, government control and entitlements that citizens overwhelmingly rejected. Republicans should forcefully advocate positive plans to address health care needs like tax incentives (not federal mandates) for individuals to purchase health coverage, tort reform to address skyrocketing costs, regulatory improvements to expand competition in insurance markets and an agenda that encourages Americans to take responsibility for their personal health through exercise and a healthy diet.

Thoughtful, telegenic Republican officials with sunny demeanors should be put front and center to lead this charge for our party. In the House, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin has been a shining star in the health care debate. He earned accolades for constructively engaging President Obama at the summit and the House GOP retreat. Additionally, his command of the facts and ability to articulate positive solutions to improve affordability and access to health care make him a perfect GOP messenger. On the Senate side, South Dakota Senator John Thune should be tapped to carry the banner. As a plain-spoken Midwesterner, Thune reasonably explains why government excesses have a negative impact on average Americans. As chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, Thune is well-versed on GOP free-market solutions that will lower health care costs. Images matter in the business of political communications, so it is an added bonus that both leaders are fit and are pictures of health.

Winning 40 seats in the House and 10 in the Senate would’ve been seen as a tall order just months ago. Now, with Democrats proudly crowing about flouting the will of the people with their health care takeover, Republicans have a unique opportunity to show voters how they’ll lead if given the reins to Congress once again.

Scott Stanzel is President of Stanzel Communications and was Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy Press Secretary to President George W. Bush.