The Republican Repeal Paradox.

All pundits -- even those of us who foresaw that the strength of the Obama administration would be its capacity for patience -- should be hesitant about predictions after the latest round of sharp turns in American politics. But it seems likely that Republicans will have a bit of a scramble over the next few months in deciding what their stance toward the health-reform law should be. “Repeal and Replace” seemed to be the slogan of choice on Sunday night, but by Monday, a proclamation from Eric Erickson of warned that "any Republican who says we will repeal and replace will themselves be replaced. We want repeal, period." On Tuesday, William Kristol, in a “Special Editorial” in the Weekly Standard, tried to split the difference: "The message will have to be not just repeal but also replace -- replace Obamacare with sensible reforms. … But the details of the replacing and reforming are secondary. Repeal is the heart of the matter.” (He also usefully modified the Republican prediction that health reform would be Obama's "Waterloo." It is actually his "Borodino," we're now told. Whatever...)

Wednesday’s Financial Times quotes former Rep. Vin Weber, a key ally of Newt Gingrich in the 1990s: “I would expect that by September the Republicans will have come up with some constructive ideas for office. The Republican line should be ‘repeal, reform and replace’. Not just ‘repeal’.”

This will not be an easy choice. “Repeal,” without qualification, energizes the base (Erickson’s readers), but involves giving up the more popular benefits of the legislation, which also take effect earlier, such as coverage of pre-existing conditions. “Replace” calls on Republicans to be at least a little specific about what they would replace it with, and after a while, repeating the phrase “our market-based solutions” won’t cut it. “Reform” seems like soft soap, and Weber’s suggestion that “by September the Republicans will have come up with some constructive ideas” begs the question of what they were doing for the last 15 months, when the issue was live.

It’s easy to see something like the Republican reaction to TARP before the 2008 election, in which their rather transparent scramble to find the politically winning approach was more damaging than any single strategy would have been.

But there remains one wild card -- process. Republicans succeeded in turning public opinion against the bill only by creating the perception that the process was corrupt, or at least messy, exacerbating the natural anxiety about change in health care. Concerns about process can be expected to fade quickly, just as they did with the Medicare Part D Act -- a genuinely corrupt vote, with monetary bribes on the floor of the House -- in 2005. But process sometimes has power -- the 1994 Contract With America, it’s often forgotten, was as much about process reforms as substance, reinforced by some late Democratic corruption stories and the messy (again, thanks only to Republican mischief-making) final passage of that year’s crime bill. If events later this year reinforce the sense that there is a continuous pattern of congressional corruption, with Democrats at least as much to blame as Republicans, it could be possible to reignite discomfort with the health-reform bill in the electoral context.

So it’s time for the administration and congressional Democrats to reclaim the upper hand on issues of process. It's more than regulations on lobbyists. It's campaign finance reform, congressional ethics, earmarks reform (not fiscally significant, but symbolic). Don't create an opening to revisit what originally made the public hesitant about health reform.

-- Mark Schmitt

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