Occasionally, the public gets a peek behind the curtains, a chance to hear the advice that elected officials and candidates receive from top political strategists. Sure, there are plenty of faux strategy papers foisted upon the press and the public, but a genuine memo on health care policy from Republican consultant Alex Castellanos to GOP leaders affords us a chance to see how these messages are framed.
Based on survey research and focus groups conducted for the Republican National Committee, Castellanos's July 7 memo sought to move Republicans from simply throwing rocks at the health care reforms proposed by President Obama and congressional Democrats to having something substantive to say. "We are fighting something bigger than policies or plans. The president and the Democrats are selling a cause," the veteran GOP strategist accurately noted. "Their cause is reducing health care costs."
Although Obama's personal favorability ratings remain high and his overall job-approval ratings hover between 55 percent and 60 percent in most polls, public support for his management of most domestic policy issues is weaker. The president's poll numbers on his handling of the budget, the deficit, and spending are "upside down" in pollster parlance, with disapproval running higher than approval. Aside from the one-third of the public that is Republican, most Americans like Obama and admire his vision and intentions even as they are increasingly skeptical about the specifics of his policies. Still, Americans support the goal of health care reform.
All of this led Castellanos to say, "Cost is driving this debate. We cannot compete with their cause [versus] our policies. We must compete with their cause [versus] our cause." He went on to say that the GOP cause "must also be bringing down health care costs." Castellanos said that although people believe they have health care choices, they find those choices confusing. The GOP needs to "bring new language to this debate," he said, or the public will end up viewing the party as "the same, outdated Republicans who have no new ideas and oppose everything."
Alex Castellanos's health care strategy memo sought to move Republicans away from simply throwing rocks.
Republicans have hardly been using "new language" in the health care debate so far. Fearmongering might well bring Democratic health care legislation to its knees, and it might even cost Democrats a dozen or so seats in the House and the opportunity to pick up a couple of seats in the Senate next year. But it won't give Republicans a chance to get back into power: They must have something positive to offer.
In his memo, Castellanos gives Republicans a dozen or so talking points and policy ideas, urging them to refer to the Democratic legislation as "the Obama experiment" and to plead, "Slow down, Mr. President."
In a Washington Post column this week, Dana Milbank had fun excoriating RNC Chairman Michael Steele for parroting the memo almost verbatim. (Does anyone think these candidates and party leaders write their own material?) But to Steele's credit, he was taking solid advice from one of the best ideas people in the GOP.
Momentum has clearly shifted in Washington over the past month -- and that was true even before Republicans started to use more-effective messaging. The change began with the earful of criticism that constituents gave Democratic House members back home over the Fourth of July recess.
The irony is that some of the soundest advice Castellanos offered to Republicans, to urge the president to "slow down," is what the voters are trying to tell Obama and his fellow Democrats. Many of the public's doubts about the wisdom of Obama's agenda are rooted in anxiety over the economy and frustration that it has not yet turned a corner. Unemployment is a lagging indicator; Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke predicts that it will peak later this year and perhaps remain high for another couple of years. But many of the other important signals, such as leading economic indicators and initial unemployment claims, suggest that the economy may be about to turn around.
Taking the time to fix the problems in the health care and climate-change bills while waiting for enough good economic news to make people feel a bit more comfortable with new spending might not be the worst thing for Democrats to do. Waiting is not a great option for the Democrats, but it may be better than losing one or both of Obama's signature proposals or passing legislation that could trigger a disaster for their party in next year's midterm elections.
This article appears in the July 25, 2009, edition of National Journal.