The Republican National Committee last month was handed a polling memo that laid out the issues and framing that would help the party gain the upper hand in the health care debate.
The study, put together by the Virginia-based On Message Inc., didn't sugarcoat the landscape. Listing the White House talking points -- that health care reform would be budget-neutral, that a public plan was necessary to stimulate competition, that consumers would be able to keep their coverage, and that Republicans are being obstructions -- the survey concluded: "If Obama Is Allowed To Sell This... He Wins."
Since then, the Republican Party has worked mightily to avoid that Obama victory. And many of their moves appear to have been derived from that OMI survey. Turning to time-tested rhetorical devices, the GOP has shifted the debate onto more friendly terrain.
For example, Republican officials have begun stressing that America has "the best health care in the world" (a sentiment supported by 54 percent of the OMI survey respondents) while simultaneously insisting that the system is "badly in need of reform" (which 70 percent of respondents said was true).
Case in point: "You know the bottom line is that we have the best health care system in the world, there's no doubt about that," RNC Chairman Michael Steele declared two weeks after the memo was finalized. "But this is a health care system that needs reform, and the reform that we've been trying to focus on is the cost side of this."
According to the OMI survey, Republicans are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to the health care debate. For starters, 48 percent of the public said they trusted Democrats to "fix the health care problem in America." Only 29 percent said the same for Republicans. Meanwhile, 58 percent of respondents said that they favored "creating a government run health insurance agency that will compete with private insurance companies," while only 35 percent were opposed.
But the survey concluded that the appetite for government intervention only extends so far. And here is where the GOP has sought to make its greatest inroads.
While most independents and ticket-splitters said the government should play a role in lowering the cost of health care, they also said the government should not try and run the health care system. And while 57 percent of respondents favored "requiring everyone to buy health insurance either through your employer or with government help," even more people (63 percent) opposed controlling costs by having the government set prices "for services and deciding what treatments it will and will not cover."
But perhaps the most heeded piece of advice emerging from the poll was to slow the process down.
After hearing a list of the White House's top priorities -- including bailouts for banks, a "national energy tax," and the nomination of a Supreme Court Justice -- respondents were given a choice: Should the president and Congress "move quickly to pass comprehensive health care reform" given how broken the current system is? Or should they "take time to evaluate all the options before rushing to pass comprehensive health care reform?"
Fifty-eight percent said the latter while only 25 percent said the former. That included 56 percent of ticket-splitters and 57 percent of Independents.
The Republicans are not alone in fine-tuning their messages. Obama, for instance, has begun discussing the need for "health insurance reform" rather than "health care reform."