Hold ‘Em Republicans

Asked on Sunday’s Meet the Press whether he believes there’s a need for Congress to pass some kind of health care reform, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell replied, “Oh, absolutely. I’m not in favor of doing nothing.”

Well, of course he’d say that. Voters have long ranked health care as one of their top concerns, and candidates from both parties routinely make pledges of reform a centerpiece of their campaign. McConnell knows there’s a broad consensus in America that something needs to be done and he’s not about to make headlines by challenging it.

But that doesn’t mean he actually wants Congress to do anything. In fact, there’s every reason to believe that the only real goal that McConnell and most of his fellow Republicans have in the current health care debate is to kill any plan backed by Barack Obama in a way that will score them political points. Because of the public’s desire for reform, this essentially means the G.O.P. must appear constructive and cooperative while engaging in obstructionism.

Right now, the most immediate task for Republicans is forcing the White House to back off its insistence that a bill be on Obama’s desk by the time Congress takes its summer recess in three weeks. Such a retreat would be a P.R. defeat for the White House, feeding the prevailing media narrative that momentum for Obama’s initiative is grinding to a halt, and the month-long recess would give the G.O.P. invaluable time to sow more public doubts about the plan (or plans) in Congress.

So on Sunday, McConnell sought to repackage this strategy as a constructive effort at fostering sound policy. “What we hope to do,” he said, “is to have enough time here for people to truly understand what's going on.” He also made sure to stress that “what we need to come up with is a truly bipartisan proposal” and to insist that “my goal is not to stop the president; my goal is to get the right kind of health care for America.”

Needless to say, there’s no evidence that McConnell and Congressional Republicans are actually interested in working with Obama and the Democrats. To date, Republicans have offered no concrete health care plan of its own; the closest they’ve come is a four-page outline offered by the House G.O.P. that doesn’t include a price tag or an estimate of the number of people who would be affected. For his part, McConnell offered little more on Sunday than a statement that money spent by individuals on health insurance should be tax-deductible.

But McConnell has to pretend to want reform, and to want to achieve it in a “bipartisan” fashion, because this is what voters like to hear. The message can’t be that Republicans are against every plan to reform the system, including Obama’s. It has to be that they, like most Americans, understand the pressing need for reform, but that they are also gravely troubled by Obama’s prescription—and that most Americans should be, too.

Hence McConnell’s effort to tie this message into his call to delay the process: “I don't think he ought to get the particular bills that we've seen out of either the House or the Senate before August, because they're really not the right way to go. … It's perfectly clear [that] this is the same kind of rush-and-spend strategy we saw on the stimulus bill.”

A far more honest and revealing assessment of the G.O.P.’s thinking was provided last Friday by South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, who told a conference call of conservative activists that “if we’re able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.”

Similar Republican delay tactics helped erode support for Bill Clinton’s health care reform plan 15 years ago. Clinton pursued a slightly different path than Obama (he drew up his own plan and presented it to Congress, while Obama has put his faith in the Congressional process), but the G.O.P. response is about the same: stall, stall, stall—until enough doubt, confusion and misinformation reaches the general public that it becomes politically acceptable to simply kill the plan.

Republicans in 1994 insisted they weren’t against reform, either—it was just Clinton’s plan that they were opposed to. But once they derailed his plan, they never pushed for a new one, not even when they won both chambers in the ’94 midterms. It won’t be any different if the G.O.P. gets its way this time.