Julian Zelizer: GOP Health Care Refusal Could Backfire





[Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. His new book is "Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security From World War II to the War on Terrorism," published by Basic Books. Zelizer writes widely about current events.]

...Republicans have a long history in the 20th century of having to defend their record of opposition to popular programs. President Dwight Eisenhower famously told fellow Republicans to accept Social Security in the 1950s or suffer the political consequences. "Should any political party," Eisenhower said, "attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history."

During his campaign for the presidency in 1980, Ronald Reagan had to defend himself against charges that he had opposed the creation of Medicare in 1965.

A second danger is that Republicans have been so focused on health care, they have lost precious time dealing with the internal divisions and ideological weaknesses that were exposed in 2008. After that election, most Republicans were prepared to take a hard look at what had gone wrong. Some pointed to the fact that the party had been in power for so long, it became accustomed to the trappings of power as well as to the electoral benefits of government spending

Republicans were also aware that their party had run out of steam in terms of generating ideas to solve the problems that America faced in the 21st century.

When confronted with issues such as climate change or health care, Republicans instinctively turned to slogans about the free market that didn't offer much in the way of concrete solutions. This marked a stark contrast to the 1970s, when Republicans had emerged as the party of ideas after investing in think tanks like CATO and the American Enterprise Institute to challenge liberal dominance.

Moreover, the divisions among the different elements of the Republican Party have hampered Republican efforts in recent primary battles such as Texas and Florida. Without compelling ideas to unite Republicans -- such as Reagan's promotion of supply-side economics and anti-communism in the 1980s -- the party will continue to have a difficult time coming together....

A recent leaked document from the Republican National Committee suggests that the party is planning to base its 2010 campaign on fear and negative attacks, rather than hope and ideas. Sometimes, in the enthusiasm over a battle, armies can lose sight of the war.

Republicans might have regained their fighting spirit over health care, but the strategy could prove to be costlier than they expect.


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