School’s Out; Spin Wars Begin

Posted March 24, 2010 at 6:14pm

Members of Congress are pivoting away from a yearlong insiders’ battle over health care legislation to a beyond-the-Beltway campaign pitting Democrats and Republicans against each other with competing job creation messages.

Cognizant of polling that shows their candidates face an uphill climb in the midterm elections, Democrats have moved to put Republicans on the defensive for opposing the health care overhaul, launching a major campaign to explain to a skeptical public how the new law will immediately improve their lives. Democrats intend to expand this message to promote their legislative efforts to attack a stubborn unemployment rate that stands near 10 percent.

The Republicans are countering with a coordinated, bicameral message of “repeal and replace,” arguing that, among other faults cited by the GOP, the health care legislation will be a significant drag on the economic recovery. Hoping to capitalize on favorable political atmospherics, GOP strategists have crafted the message in part to show that the minority deserves the voters’ trust and is prepared to govern.

“If we want to persuade independent voters, we have to demonstrate that we’re capable of governing — that if they want to put us in the majority or near the majority, that we have good ideas about how to reduce the debt, how to create jobs,” Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) said Wednesday. “People will be looking to us to see, ‘What will these guys do if we put them in charge?’ and I want them to have a good picture of what Republicans would do.”

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats will fan out across the country next week for the spring recess armed with messaging materials that highlight the “immediate deliverables” constituents can expect under the legislation. Senate Democrats also will spend the recess discussing their jobs agenda and plans for reforming Wall Street.

“We just passed one of the biggest bills in history; people are going to want to talk about it,” a senior Democratic leadership aide said.

Additionally, between now and November, Democrats have laid out an internal messaging strategy that will tack closely with the health care legislation’s implementation timelines, allowing lawmakers to capitalize on the steady rollout of new benefits and tax breaks included in the new law. “Between now and the election we will have a media strategy that parallels the implementation timeline,” the leadership aide explained.

Congressional Republicans first developed the “repeal and replace” message while preparing for President Barack Obama’s Feb. 25 bipartisan health care reform summit, aware that they needed a unified message in the event that Democrats won the legislative fight to clear the overhaul. The daily conference calls of bicameral GOP leadership staff spawned during the health care battle have continued as Republicans on both sides of the Dome seek to maintain a unified campaign message as Nov. 2 draws closer.

Republican leaders see both substantive and political advantages in the “repeal and replace” mantra, and argue it will bolster party unity on the issue in the months ahead. Substantively, the slogan allows the GOP to tout its ideas for health care reform. Politically, it provides an avenue to harness public opposition to the new law while giving incumbents and challengers wide latitude to operate within this theme.

But Republicans say the focus on health care will, over the recess, morph into a larger discussion about the economy, with GOP Members set to argue that the new law will depress job creation and restrain economic growth. Additionally, even as the Republicans make their case for “repeal and replace” on health care, they will home in on the themes of job creation, national security, government spending, the deficit and the growth of government.

“It’s jobs, jobs and jobs,” National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) said when asked to describe the GOP message going forward. “Particularly, quit passing bills that are killing jobs or adding to the debt. That will be what we think should be the priority.”

After the recess, Democrats will spend the bulk of their time working on employment legislation — trying to tie even tangentially related bills into Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) “jobs agenda.” For Senate Democrats, the transition out of the health care debate began weeks ago after Reid decided to abandon a massive jobs bill that enjoyed bipartisan support in favor of a rifle-shot approach to the issue.

By pushing through a handful of jobs measures — including one worth more than $110 billion — Democrats have given themselves a messaging base from which to work. And while Democrats will continue to hit major themes such as national security, immigration and climate change over the coming months, “there’s going to be two constants: health care and jobs,” a senior Democratic leadership aide said.

Having several bills already moving through the pipeline and many more — including a small-business bill and a “public sector” bill aimed at helping teachers, firefighters, police and others — ready for action, Democrats hope to make the case that they are taking every step they can to help the economy. As was the case with previously passed jobs bills, Reid is working carefully to ensure these smaller bills can attract enough GOP support to not only break a filibuster, but to undermine Republican attacks.

For instance, Republicans have bemoaned last year’s stimulus bill’s emphasis on creating government jobs. But by targeting legislation at teachers and police, Reid believes he can either short-circuit GOP opposition or paint Republicans as being against ensuring schools have adequate teachers.

“They can explain why they don’t want more teachers and police on the street,” the senior Democratic leadership aide said. “If that’s the discussion they want to have, we’re more than willing to do that.”

Reid also is looking to make energy efficiency a jobs bill and will argue later this year that energy efficiency tax credits and rebates will “put contractors and homebuilders back to work,” the leadership aide said. Even on issues such as immigration and climate change — neither of which are expected to pass this year — Reid is hoping to keep the jobs theme reverberating, aides said.