First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
Anger Doesn't Work
On The O'Reilly Factor last Monday night, there was a female guest talking about claims that an angry Tea Party crowd had hurled racial invective at a black congressman. She and O'Reilly (or at least his staff) had pored over all the available video and audio from the event and could not find any of the alleged racial invective.
O'Reilly, contrary to the fond beliefs of the Left, is careful to make sure he sticks to the facts in evidence; his guest did not share that attitude. O'Reilly said, "We can't find any video corroboration, but that doesn't mean it didn't happen."
His guest, however, said, "We only have the word of a couple of congresspeople who just voted to trample on the Constitution, so we can be sure they just made up false charges against the Tea Party crowd."
O'Reilly pushed the point: Just because somebody voted for the health care bill does not mean he's a liar.
His guest disagreed. Apparently, in her mind, anyone who voted for this health care reform package is so nefarious that no lie is beneath them.
She looked stupid and insane. She looked like the poster child for the death of Republican hopes in November.
Get Things in Perspective
There are two ways to look at the job of members of Congress.
1. They represent the people, so they must vote as the majority of the people of their district want them to vote.
2. They were chosen by their constituents to help govern America, so they must give the nation the benefit of their judgment and vote as their conscience directs, regardless of what the polls say.
The first is certainly the safest way, if you want to get reelected. But polls can change, and a vote they condemn you for this month might be the same vote they praise you for six months later. Or vice versa.
You have to give due credit to those House Democrats who voted against the wishes of their constituents. With a few exceptions, they must really believe in health care reform. It took guts to risk defeat at the polls in order to enact this set of reforms.
And who knows how the American people will feel about health care reform six months from now? If the law turns out to be truly awful, then these Democrats will pay the price. But chances are just as good that the anger will have dissipated, and the election won't be a shoo-in for the Republicans.
In fact, it may well be that most of the people who opposed Obamacare in the polls weren't angry at all. Many or most of them might have been worried or skeptical rather than angry.
Anger Loses Elections
Populist parties -- like the Tea Party movement -- spring up every now and then, but they don't win the presidency, and they don't take over Congress. Ever. Because populism is anger-driven, and anger doesn't attract majorities.
Embracing populism is how a party makes itself unelectable. The Democrats did it by making William Jennings Bryan their candidate for president three times around the turn of the last century. Populism lost every time -- it repelled the swing voters.
Anger is ugly. We see it on talk shows all the time -- whoever gets mad, loses. No matter who it is, if they show anger on camera, they're going to lose to the people who seem confident and calm.
My first North Carolina election was Jim Hunt's challenge to Senator Jesse Helms. I watched the debate hoping, as a Democrat, to see Helms go down. But Helms -- who was, by any measure, by far the more extremist candidate in his political record -- appeared amused, avuncular, happy. Meanwhile, he calmly said things that goaded Jim Hunt into getting angrier and angrier.
By the end of the debate, Hunt was almost spitting with fury. I knew right then that he had lost the election.
The Democrats would love to run against video footage of angry Tea Party people.
Swing Voters Don't Hate Health Care Reform
If Republicans keep speaking of Obamacare as if it were from the devil after it has become law, they will only make themselves look ridiculous. It's a badly conceived and written law, but it's not satanic.
In fact, most goals of this health care reform are shared by clear majorities of the voters. Americans don't want people shut out from health care just because they're poor, or because they had a preexisting condition, or because they got really sick and the insurance companies don't want to pay.
Now that Obamacare is law, if Republicans threaten to repeal it, Democrats can say, accurately, that Republicans are trying to take away benefits that most Americans want.
That's why the Democrats were so eager to pass the bill, even with polls clearly against it. It's so much easier for Democrats to win elections when they can tell people that Republicans are trying to take away their rights. They've been doing it with Social Security for decades. Obamacare is now a right.
So Republicans had better not talk about repeal. It's impossible anyway. There is no scenario in which the Republicans win a veto-proof majority in the Senate -- there aren't enough Senate seats up for grabs -- so Obama will be able to veto any repeal bill that comes to him. Unless the Supreme Court strikes it down, this is law and is going to stay law, at least as long as Obama is President.
Republicans can make vague promises about "putting health care on a sound basis," but they'd better not get specific. Because Democrats will use any talk about repealing the Obama health care law as a way to frighten the voters.
Anger doesn't win elections -- but fear does
The issues that will help Republicans win next November's elections are jobs, the economy, and Obama's complete incompetence with foreign policy. There is no reason to suppose that any of Obama's policies in these areas will do anything but make everything worse.
Fear of disaster -- economic or international -- will work for the Republicans this fall, because Obama is doing exactly the wrong things in both areas.
Everything Obama is doing will take money out of the economy and build up an unsustainable debt. In foreign policy, Obama is punishing everyone who trusted us and giving bonuses to our enemies. If Republicans can make clear to the public what should be done in these areas, and sound wise and reasonable while doing it, then the swing voters will gravitate toward them in November.
It might be that the Supreme Court will find unconstitutional the Obamacare requirement that people must buy health insurance or pay a stiff fine. But even this provision in the new law is based on reason.
Insurance is all about spreading risk around. It only works if you have a lot of healthy people paying for insurance they aren't really using, so that their premiums can pay for the people whose health goes bad in a big way.
If only sick people and buy insurance, then the premiums will be so high no one can afford them. By requiring the young and healthy, who often don't buy health insurance, to join in the risk pool, Obamacare is trying to increase the amount of money available to care for the very sick -- without raising taxes.
I know: If the government requires it, then it's still a tax, right? But if it's paid to insurance companies and the government never touches it, then it isn't a tax ... right? I agree with both arguments. This makes it very hard to choose between them.
If you categorize anyone who supports health care reform as evil, or "trashing the Constitution," or "socialist," then guess what: You're the one who's going to sound like the crazy extremist in the discussions to come.
Most of the people who supported Obamacare did so because they wanted to solve real problems in the real world.
Voting for Obamacare does not prove a Democratic congressman to be evil. Short-sighted, perhaps. Partisan in the extreme, definitely. Financially reckless, arguably. But not evil!
My wife and I spent seventeen years with a child whose cerebral palsy made him uninsurable. We have spent thirty years paying for health insurance for ourselves and our few employees at a very high rate. When Obamacare supporters talked about the people who were struggling or losing out entirely under the old system, they were not exaggerating.
I thought the Obamacare bill was bad law, but now that it has passed, I -- like a majority of Americans -- will not be impressed by anyone who talks about repealing it without keeping some version of the core benefits in place. Don't take the furniture out of the house unless you have something better to put in its place.
If Obamacare is unconstitutional, then the Supreme Court will say so.
And while some conservatives start to twitch and froth at the mouth at the mere idea of socialism, most Americans don't even know what it means. It's just an epithet the Right hurls at the Left. A bit of mud.
And when you do explain it, they're likely to be even less impressed. "Europe's got socialism all over the place, and they're still doing OK -- they've got problems, but so do we." Crying "socialism" doesn't win over the swing voters at all.
You've got to sound -- and be -- practical. Name-calling and rage work against you; rational criticism and positive solutions to problems that the swing voters care about will work for you.
"Calm" Isn't "Dull"
I don't mean that Republicans have to be boring. To win in November, they need to be worried, concerned -- and as entertaining and attractive as possible.
"We know how to fix the problems the Democrats have caused, with their wild spending, high taxes, and fantasy-based foreign policy. America is getting poorer at home and weaker abroad. Please elect us to set things to rights, or some pretty awful things are likely to happen, to us and to our children."
Then, if the Republicans manage to find great candidates who are able to appeal across party and ideological lines without ever getting angry, then yes, the Republicans have an excellent chance of recapturing both houses of Congress.
In Politics, Purity Kills
Many Republicans have the insane notion that the further they move to their party's extreme right wing, the "purer" they'll be.
Pure, yes ... and out of office. Ideological candidates only win when they are facing a very unpopular incumbent. Centrist candidates are the ones who can reach into the vast middle ground and win the trust of swing voters, while still satisfying the core.
Republicans now vilify John McCain, saying that he lost because he wasn't a pure enough conservative. How dumb are these people, really? The phenomenal thing is that McCain came as close to winning as he did. In fact, he might have pulled it out, if the economy hadn't tanked (and the Leftist media hadn't managed to hide the Democratic role in triggering the collapse).
Even the example of Reagan doesn't mean what the arch-conservatives think. Reagan beat Carter in 1980 because Carter was such a disastrous and unpopular president. His humiliation at the hands of the Iranians -- and Reagan's ability to stay calm, genial, and likeable instead of ever sounding angry -- overcame the natural disadvantage of Reagan's image as an ideologue.
Then, in 1984, Reagan had proven himself not to be all that ideological. Remember how the ultra-right-wing Republicans kept moaning "Let Reagan be Reagan!"? They didn't like the Reagan presidency -- they simply declined to blame Reagan himself for how non-ideological it was.
Reagan governed as a centrist. His slogan in 1984 was "It's morning in America." When learning the lessons of Ronald Reagan, Republicans really ought to remember that.
So it will be fascinating to watch as Republicans decide whether to seize this historic opportunity to reclaim the majority by appealing to the whole electorate, or instead indulge their tendency to insist that they'd rather be right than govern.
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