WASHINGTON — Republicans are aggressively spreading a simple but tart message across the nation this summer: Democrats only want to tax and spend wildly and expand an already-bloated government.
In ads, town meetings and speeches, Republican leaders are charging that Democratic big government is going to make it harder to get good health care, will keep the economy stuck in a recessionary ditch and eventually will trigger new inflation.
"Democrats, by the force of their policies and the force of their votes, have set in motion a number of things to be responsible for," Republican Chairman Michael Steele said.
Republicans are taking a huge risk with this Democrat-bashing, experts said, since their strategy relies on the economy remaining miserable and the Democratic Party proving unable to control government spending or uninterested in doing so.
"In the past, the classic strategy has been to oppose some of the president's initiatives, but find a couple areas where you can cooperate. That makes it harder for your opponents to brand you as the party of no," said Darrell West, the vice president and director of governance at The Brookings Institution, a center-left Washington policy-research center.
"This is a big gamble."
The public ultimately will judge the GOP's demonize-the-Democrats campaign on whether Republicans stop, or dramatically alter, President Barack Obama's bids to overhaul health care, curb global warming and revive the economy. The voters' judgment will determine whether the GOP makes significant gains in the 2010 congressional elections.
At the moment, Republican efforts are aimed at influencing Congress, where Republicans hold 40 seats in the 100-member Senate and 178 in the 435-member House of Representatives. Before they left Washington on Friday for their summer recess, most Republican lawmakers spoke with nearly one voice on issue after issue.
For instance, while the unemployment rate dipped slightly in July to 9.4 percent — the first monthly drop since April 2008 — the country still lost 247,000 jobs last month, Republicans emphasized Friday when the data were announced.
House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., charged that "House Democrats, along with the White House ... (have taken) an unfocused, go-it-alone approach that has fallen well short of its goals and failed to create jobs."
The July job losses were fewer than had been expected, but that's hardly a reason to rejoice, said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Republican Senate re-election committee chairman.
He recalled that this year's $787 billion stimulus bill was supposed to be "Obama's most striking legislative accomplishment" and that during the debate, Larry Summers, the director of Obama's National Economic Council, said, "You'll see the effects begin almost immediately."
"His prediction did not come true," Cornyn said.
Republicans have been energized by a series of recent developments, notably polls that found Obama's approval numbers down and growing public wariness of the Democrats' health care proposals. A McClatchy-Ipsos poll taken from July 30 through Monday found that only 44 percent of Americans judged Obama's performance on health care satisfactory, while 36 percent found it unsatisfactory. That rating was down sharply from early April, when 50 percent were satisfied and only 25 percent were not.
Republicans could gain public support this summer because they have the easier argument to make, said Evans Witt, the head of the polling firm Princeton Survey Research Associates.
"Opponents of health care have done a nice job of picking out what people don't like and targeting that," Witt said. "Until you get a single bill where Obama and Democrats can say, 'This is our package,' it'll be easy for opponents to nitpick."
The president has offered some health care-overhaul guidelines, and Democrats on four congressional committees have written differing versions. On a fifth committee, Senate Finance, six members — three from each party — have been trying for months to craft a bipartisan measure. They hope to have legislation ready next month. Later this year, Democratic congressional leaders plan to meld these proposals into a single version the party can unite behind.
Meanwhile, Republicans plan to spend August firing away.
They raise two main points of attack: Taxes will go up, and people will lose their ability to choose their own physicians and health plans.
Obama disputes both points. Democrats are considering increasing taxes, but only on the wealthy or on insurance companies that sell high-end policies, and the president says that those who like their current doctors or insurance plans will be permitted to keep them.
The Republican assault isn't limited to health care. Among other targets:
- Cap and trade. House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio blasted the Democrats' plan to curb carbon emissions as "code for increasing taxes, killing American jobs and raising energy costs for consumers." The measure passed the House in June on a largely partisan vote but has stalled in the Senate.
Republican risk: alienating voters concerned about global warming.
- Sonia Sotomayor. Nine Republicans voted for her confirmation Thursday but 31 voted no. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the Judiciary Committee's top Republican, charged just before the vote that Sotomayor "has bluntly advocated a judicial philosophy where judges ground their decisions not in the objective rule of the law, but in the subjective realm of personal opinions, sympathies and prejudices.''
Republican risk: alienating Hispanics, the nation's fastest-growing voter bloc, by opposing the first Hispanic justice on the Supreme Court.
- Cash for clunkers. Thirty-five Senate Republicans voted against adding $2 billion to the popular program, which won approval Thursday 60-37. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., mocked the plan during debate, saying sarcastically that he hoped a cash-for-golf-clubs plan was next.
"I've had many calls from people who have old golf clubs," he said in a Senate floor speech, "and they'd like to have some cash for them. As we know, it's an important national sport and an important part of our economy."
Republican risk: Alienating Americans who see this as the one stimulus program from Washington that steers money to ordinary people instead of to banks and Wall Street.
Steele said that his party's strategy went beyond trying to wound Democrats. "We can't just go out and jump up and scream and say look how bad everything is," he said. In addition, he said, Republicans should explain their principles of less government, lower taxes and conservative social values.
That's not what America's hearing, however, and simply bashing the governing party is a risky strategy, Witt said.
Suppose the economy rebounds? What if a health care overhaul proves popular? What will Republicans do then?, Witt wondered.
"You can't oppose success," he said.
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Read more about the health care debate at McClatchy's "Health Care Battle" page.