How Republicans could soon ‘own’ the health care issue

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Writing at the Wall Street Journal, Ramesh Ponnuru and Yuval Levin argue that “[n]ow is the time to advance a conservative reform that can solve the serious, discrete problems of the health-care system in place before ObamaCare, but without needlessly upending people’s arrangements or threatening what works in American medicine.”

As they concede, one argument against such an idea is that “proposing an alternative would give Democrats a target and distract the public from the expected and now real failures of ObamaCare.”

This is a legitimate concern, but this argument could also be made to shoot down any policy proposal about any subject. Yes, a bad plan would yield bad coverage. But by settling on at least a general framework for what a conservative alternative might look like (tax incentives instead of mandates, catastrophic coverage with high deductibles, but low premiums, etc.), conservatives could put themselves in a position to capitalize if and when ObamaCare collapses. What is more, they would be seizing the high ground — casting themselves on the side of Americans who desperately need coverage, while doing so in a much more free market manner.

There is potential for this to be a huge opportunity for conservatives to undermine the Democratic Party’s natural advantage on the issue of health care. But only if they take it seriously and put long-term credibility on health care policy ahead of short-term political gain.

As Ben Domenech observes, “President Obama’s signature domestic policy may have accomplished something previously unthinkable: taking an issue where one party had a dominant hold on public opinion, and reversing it in favor of the opposing party.”

Just as Iraq was a turning point for Democrats, helping reverse the assumption that Republicans “owned” issues like national security and foreign policy, the ObamaCare debacle could be the moment when voters stop trusting Democrats as the “health-care party.” But in order for that to happen, Republicans must become a credible alternative.

This will take work. It wasn’t enough that Iraq went poorly for Republicans — Barack Obama also had to persuade Americans that Democrats could be trusted on issues like national security and foreign policy. Issues have built-in skews, and stereotypes about weak or dovish Democrats had accrued over a generation or more — since at least Vietnam. (It’s unclear whether or not Democrats will revert to their old image; it might be that the killing of bin Laden was the apogee, and that his mishandling of Syria bodes poorly for this effort.)

Let me explain why, in the long run, this matters politically. As I said, issues have built-in skews. For most of my life, if the most important topic voters cared about when they went into a voting booth was foreign policy, you could almost guarantee that a Republican would win. Likewise, if the topic were health care — it really didn’t matter what the Republican answer was — a Democrat had an inherent advantage on that subject. Unfortunately, this realization means that politicians are better off changing the subject to an issue that skews in their direction than at working to improve on the issues which skew against them (this partially explains why there are so few foreign policy experts in the Democratic Party and so few health care experts in the GOP.)

The point is that there are rare occasions when political parties and philosophies are presented with an opportunity to change the paradigm — and seize an issue that previously skewed against them. Republicans may be on the verge of such an opportunity, but only if they don’t blow it. They could potentially outflank Democrats on the health care issue, but they have to take it seriously.