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What Stimulus Messaging Lessons Portend for the Health Care Debate

For the second consecutive time on Friday, House Republicans rejected Barack Obama’s “open hand” on the stimulus bill. Reject the open hand, meet Obama’s “firm handshake.”

Josh Marshall’s recent editorial piece on the “Big Disconnect” cites top pollster Ann Selzer’s reaction to the anti-confluence of Beltway reporting and her polling from the Midwest, which Tom Schaller has noted is still the dominant swing region in America.

The White House is certainly aware of that disconnect, even if, as Rahm Emanuel admitted Thursday evening, it took four days of lost, non-sharp messaging in the middle of the stimulus bill debate to re-center on a jobs message that aimed at American reality as opposed to Beltway reality.

Beyond passage of the stimulus bill, there are any number of definitely and potentially tougher fights on the horizon for this administration this year: the budget bill, the Employee Free Choice Act, the structure of the second phase of TARP spending, and major housing package to be unveiled Wednesday in Phoenix.

Still, no fight looms bigger than health care.

Of all the legislation coming down the pike, no fight will require more discipline in messaging from the White House and Congressional Democrats, as well as bully pulpit-ing from Barack Obama.

At the tail end of Friday’s briefing, Robert Gibbs gave a mostly unnoticed preview of this upcoming brutal health care fight, and the messaging that must be pitch-perfect throughout. (Democrats will also need Al Franken as the 59th Senator.) While the specific question topic was about a piece of the stimulus bill, this is clearly where the argument goes with the larger health care debate.

Asked whether he believed Republicans opposing the piece of the stimulus package designed to computerize health care information technology records were using “entirely political rhetoric,” Gibbs was blunt: “Yes, I do. I think it’s exceedingly similar to what we’ve heard going on the past two decades, yes.”

Get ready, Republicans, here comes the messaging:

“If I was for saving money, saving lives, creating jobs, providing less bureaucracy, I think I’d support an increased investment in health care technology … We have to move our health care system into the 21st century. If I was for saving small businesses money in their health care, I’d be for an increased investment in health care IT.” (Gibbs’ entire answer appended below)

“Save money.”

“Save lives.”

“Create jobs.”

“Less bureaucracy.”

“21st century.”

Now, add in Obama, the master storyteller, send him around the country every single week, campaign-style, hammering the message home at townhalls and small businesses where poignant, human moments are a given. A dash of trademark Obama “I am my brother’s keeper” in the form of “no country this blessed should allow its citizens to go sick,” and even use of the “shameful” stick when necessary, and there you have your message.

That, my friends, is called cooking with gas.

Run against that, Rush Limbaugh party of “I want (Obama) to fail.” SNL is already lampooning – specifically – Republican tone-deaf messaging. When your party’s message is the punchline on late-night comedy shows, a jarring, Bartleby the Scrivener-esque “no, I would prefer not to,” that’s a sign that Marshall’s “Big Disconnect” is real.

Obama is winning the optics war of “reaching out” to Republicans among the electorate. “Bipartisanship,” I remain convinced, is really a proxy among the vague American followers of public debate for “not extreme.” “It can’t be that extreme if there’s some element of compromise.” The past eight years felt extreme, and it spurred a massive backlash at the polls two cycles in a row, which is a-historical.

Still, with their focus on “tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts,” Republicans seem willing to talk themselves into narrower, more circumstantial reasons for their losses in 2006 and 2008. Abramoff and scandal was to blame in 2006, Obama’s unique candidacy combined with one individual’s unpopularity (George W. Bush) was to blame in 2008, but Americans still want tax cuts and trickle-down.

This denial, and the increasing regionalization of the Republican Party, undergirds what Nate calls the Republican death spiral. Let’s remember, in reality, thanks to sweeping back-to-back electoral verdicts, the Republicans are roughly one Senate vote away from electoral irrelevance, and God help them if Democrats net three or four seats in 2010. For all the press corps questions and drama surrounding “bipartisanship,” the playing field isn’t close to equal. Obama will fully own credit for the success or failures of his policies, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

For all the restless, left-of-center originated criticisms that have been leveled Obama’s way – for appointing too many Republicans to the Cabinet, for putting too many Clintonistas throughout the government, for not getting a perfect stimulus bill through Congress, for, in general, seeming too little aware, in short, that he won and let’s freaking act like it – we sit here just under four weeks from the inauguration with a massive stimulus bill awaiting tomorrow’s Denver signing and Republicans appearing to most of the country to be calculating obstructionists, hoping Obama will fail purely so that they can win back power.

Moreover, Obama’s team learned lessons and still won. They’re in a position of refining and improving. Tweak here, tweak there, ready to be new and improved on the health care fight, the flagship policy fight of 2009. What lessons have Republicans learned from these past four weeks? Where’s their adjusted strategy, following the big ‘L’ they just posted? Lindsey Graham waving the stimulus bill in the air and John Boehner dumping it on the floor of the House? Yelling “pork” ‘til blue in the face?

Health care is not the next agenda item. Structuring the TARP distribution and a major home foreclosure announcement are the center of this week’s high-profile discussion. Yet, health care is the big enchilada, and all of what the first 27 days of Obama’s presidency have taught us is prologue to that public policy drama. From what we’ve seen, while Republicans flounder, Obama and the White House are ready to roll.


Gibbs’ answer, in full:

“I think we’ve heard a lot of concern in this process for ‘spending.’ And I think whether it is the spending that is in this bill to create jobs through alternative energy, whether that’s through creating jobs to implement health care technology, whether that is creating jobs to improve schools and build 21st century classrooms and laboratories, all of those will have a lasting impact to save the taxpayers money.

Each – you saw the president I think do this in both town hall meetings this week. If you go to the bank on your way home and take out your ATM card and get $25 out of your account to use this weekend, that’s a transaction that costs the bank, I think, in many cases, half of a penny to do. Medical transaction moving your records from your doctor in Bethesdsa to an emergency room in Washington costs $10. The president believes that by implementing health care technology, we can save billions of dollars in health care costs that we see skyrocketing every year. That we see putting more and more businesses out of business, and is blamed repeatedly for patient safety and patient death.

So I think that if I was for saving money, saving lives, creating jobs, providing less bureaucracy, I think I’d support an increased investment in health care technology that would likely do all those things. We have to move our health care system into the 21st century. If I was for saving small businesses money in their health care, I’d be for an increased investment in health care IT.

I think many of the complaints that you’ve heard from different people about this bill, if you look through the lens of, particularly the health IT projects, I think many of those questions are answered for those individual critics. Whether they like the answer is an interesting thing to ask them.”