Everyone agrees on one thing: The new health reform legislation fundamentally alters the relationship between Americans and their government.
Indeed, Americans of all philosophical stripes want November’s elections to be a national referendum on the big and transformative issues that go to the heart of the American experiment.
To strategists on the right, health care reform has done more to electrify and, significantly, unite the center-right coalition in America since the end of the Cold War.
The movement to repeal Obamacare has begun.
Repeal legislation has been introduced in Congress. Grass-roots campaigns have started. It’s now clear that the 2010 elections are going to turn on a simple question: to repeal or not to repeal.
Initially, no one will need to ask candidates what they mean when they say that they stand for “repeal.” But, gradually, the repeal movement will evolve into something larger and, ultimately, more advantageous to right-of-center candidates.
The notion of repeal will come to encompass the entire Obama agenda.
It will tap into the escalating frustration many Americans feel about many other issues: the $862 billion stimulus bill, budgets that could triple the national debt in a decade, bureaucrats with authority to set the pay of executives at major corporations, a president embarrassed by the notion of American exceptionalism, an antiterrorism strategy that grants Miranda rights to terrorists and redistributionist tax increases that penalize our most entrepreneurial citizens.
Center-right candidates must appreciate that something unusual is going on out there, and they need to understand its source. Voters’ frustrations stem from a growing sense that their children and grandchildren will inherit an America in decline, a dramatic departure from our historic faith in intergenerational upward mobility.
Indeed, a Gallup Poll in December found that the percentage of Americans optimistic about America’s prospects over the next 20 years fell from 79 percent in 1991 and 78 percent in 2000 to only 63 percent today.
Meanwhile, a recent Zogby poll found that only 52 percent of Americans believe “it is possible for most middle-class Americans to achieve the American dream,” down from 61 percent barely 15 months ago.
It is significant that the tea party protest movement building over the past year draws deeply from the values, history and even the terminology of America’s founding. This is something new.
Voters wave copies of their pocket Constitutions at their congressmen and quote the Federalist Papers and the Declaration of Independence. State leaders now discuss the wisdom of convening a second constitutional convention, so intensely do they feel the overbearing weight of federal power and reach.
The national referendum will not be on any single issue -- such as health care reform -- but, rather, on the future direction of our country.
Center-right candidates must keep this national debate focused at the 30,000-foot level, on the attributes of America’s exceptionalism -- which a consistent majority of Americans embrace.
This means a government with limited powers derived from the consent of its free citizens; a Supreme Court that adheres strictly to the Constitution; and a country in which the important decisions in life are the province of self-reliant individuals, families, churches and private charities -- in that order -- and in which reliance on government is the absolute last resort.
The political winds favor this approach. Numerous pollsters have identified a rightward shift in public attitudes on a wide range of issues -- with the trend especially pronounced among independents.
Center-right candidates will be positioned to tattoo incumbents with their support for the most controversial elements of the president’s agenda -- the economic stimulus bill, the 2010 budget resolution, cap and trade and health care reform -- and should explain how and why these votes traduce the core values that most Americans hold dear.
This approach may fare surprisingly well in blue states. Polls conducted in some of the Democratic districts targeted in the health care debate, for example, found that opposition to Obamacare was highest in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Colorado.
It’s not every day that the central tenets of the American experiment come under such a sustained assault. For that reason, this election season may be one in which traditional tactics such as negative campaign ads fall flat, and a more elevated appeal to voters is in order.
Center-right candidates should educate voters on the wisdom of America’s first principles, explain how and why the policy direction of the past year undermines them and set forth the policies required to restore optimism and faith in a better future for coming generations.
And they should be prepared to do some heavy lifting when they arrive in Washington.
Michael Franc, vice president of government relations at The Heritage Foundation, was communications director for former House Majority Leader Dick Armey.
First appeared in Politico