The frantic search for an issue

Those gatherings in Washington aimed at influencing the deliberations of the Supreme Court when the justices rule on the challenge to the health care reform law include folks who hope not only for the health care legislation, or perhaps major parts of it, to be ruled unconstitutional, but that it serves as the big 2012 rally point Republicans are desperately in search of. The agitators for repeal of the law know very well that, as things now stand, the GOP/Tea Party alignment is back on its heels, as far as being battle-ready for the November stakes.

What that element dares to dream about is a re-run of all hell breaking loose, as it did in 2009, when the anti-Obama crowd made health care reform a wedge issue that had the kind of galvanizing effect that facilitated the big Congressional turnover in 2010. Election to the House of a slew of right-siders, a number of them proponents of extremist views on the role of government, gave Republicans a taste of blood for the next time around when the spoils of battle would include the presidency.

Fortunately, a scenario in which all of Washington would fall in and dance to that far-right tune is not how it has played out. Rather, what we’ve had is a graphic illustration of governmental dysfunction, where intransigence on the part of conservative hardliners has seen Congress plummet to public approval numbers so low as to practically defy measurement. Republicans are uniformly seen as the main culprits whenever public attitudes toward this Washington paralysis are sampled. Net effect for the GOP has been that the hoped-for drive to bring government to an embrace of those well-known right wing talking points has run into some bumps in the road. And the signal received most clearly by Americans is of recklessness by an out-of-control bunch who, under the guise of advocating for “the people” in fact push an agenda that leaves most of “the people” hung out to dry.

Republicans being seen as generally favoring those in the society of higher socio-economic profile is hardly new, but it has become much more stark in the heady expectations following the success of those 2010 House elections. It was a classic case of going for too much of a good thing and believing, to boot, that the rap about having the public’s back was a saleable defense even against excessively irresponsible conduct. Legislative decisions or votes constantly going to the down-to-the-wire stage, threats to shut down the government, open defiance of public sentiment (as in popular support for the well-to-do being asked to pay a higher tax rate) all cast a hot-to-trot House majority as being totally out of step with the public they claimed to protect.

Such behavior has only given rise to a highlighting of the now famous 99 percent versus one percent phenomenon – something for which Republicans have hubristically laid the blame on Democrats for what they have labeled “class warfare.” That sense of almost permanent Washington gridlock has also led to a souring, among those of even slightly moderate bent in the GOP fold, of attitude about what the party brand has become. Maine’s Sen. Olympia Snowe is only the latest of that ilk to give up in disgust, announcing in February that she would not seek reelection in November.

The antics of presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney during the current campaign have been a perfect caption for what now frames the party’s identity. Romney absolutely could not have won himself the governorship of Massachusetts had he merchandised himself then as the avid conservative he now purports to be. But his past profile is the Achilles heel that has the right-side party faithful obviously unconvinced about his go-to line of rhetoric. Romney’s attempts at pulling off this role have often been so clumsy, it clearly has messed with the GOP’s sense of confidence regarding the man who will apparently lead their charge this fall. The combination of an electorate fed up with Capitol Hill tomfoolery and a presidential candidate considered well shy of the genuine article is surely baggage the party would rather not have.

Hence the frantic search for whatever could prompt a revisiting of 2009’s anti-Obama uproar. Had there not lately been positive economic recovery news, that frenzy from three years ago would have been an easier reach today. But encouraging economic developments makes less palatable the bellowing of folks who’ve shown themselves capable of holding the country hostage in pursuit of an agenda that doesn’t necessarily sit well with most Americans. Looking to the legal challenge to healthcare reform to provide the “Aha!” moment might not be the sure bet the challengers think it is. For one thing, some provisions of the law which have so far been rolled out could already be making a difference that is more likely to garner public support than engender opposition. Changes in Medicare, for instance, where an emphasis on preventive services includes elimination of fees for services for most beneficiaries is pretty certain to register positively. Ditto, the change which allows young people to be covered in parents’ insurance plans through age 26.

Even if the government mandate that everyone have insurance becomes the central issue for the court and is struck down, heathcare reform seemingly has enough going for it to deny the opposition the political wallop they’re figuring it will be.

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