Senators Charles Schumer and Lindsey Graham on healthcare reform: Let's get it on

Republicans have promised a campaign to repeal the healthcare reform bill. President Obama said: 'Go for it.' Sens. Charles Schumer (D) and Lindsey Graham (R) showed Sunday that the midterm elections could indeed be a battle royal on healthcare reform.

Luis M. Alvarez/AP/File
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), speaking here at a rally on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 24, met with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on Meet the Press on Sunday.
Cliff Owen/AP
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), speaking here at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference dinner in Washington, March 22, met with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) on Meet the Press on Sunday.

On NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina appeared to lay out his party's winning strategy in the 2010 midterm elections:

"We're going to have a spirited, civil contest on the size and shape of government and healthcare will be center stage," Senator Graham Sunday.

Speaking on the same program, Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York did all but lick his lips in response.

"I'm raring to go for a debate on the merits," he said.

On healthcare reform, this November's elections are fast taking on the appearance of a Wreslemania grudge match.

Steel cage politics

Typically, elections can be more a Sun Tzu sort of thing – cagey and strategic – with the parties and their candidates trying to highlight their strengths while avoiding their supposed weaknesses: If Republicans attack from the west on national security, for instance, the Democrats counterattack from the east on the environment and financial reform.

But this fall, it appears that both parties think they have the ultimate winning issue. And in both cases, it is the exact same issue: Healthcare reform.

Since the House passed the healthcare bill last Sunday, Republicans have said one of the pillars of their election platform will be repeal of the law. President Obama responded as though he had just ripped the feather boa from around his neck and was flexing in the center of the ring: "Go for it."

What's going on here? How can both parties think they will win the November elections by taking precisely the opposite view of the same topic? Is one party about to embark on a strategic gaffe of historic proportions?

Uncharted territory

Perhaps. More likely is that both parties are just feeling their way through relatively uncharted territory for the time being.

The fact is, as presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin pointed out on "Meet the Press," "The battle of public sentiment was never won by the Obama people. The majority of people still don't feel good about this bill."

This is where the preelection goals of Republicans and Democrats become clear:

Democrats like what's in the bill, and they're convinced that most Americans will come around to their point of view – as Americans did on Social Security and Medicare – given time to digest the particulars of the law.

Republicans are convinced that that Americans already know all they need to know about the bill and the GOP is determined to turn that general dislike into a solid disgust by November.

Who's right?

At the moment, either side could be right. A Washington Post poll showing that 46 percent of Americans support the bill and 50 percent oppose it suggests a nation yet to make up its mind decisively – despite the conviction of the voices from the extremes.

Ms. Goodwin added, quoting from Abraham Lincoln: "He who molds public sentiment is more important than he who passes laws."

The difficult and at times unsightly job of passing the law now done, both parties will focus on molding public sentiment.

As Goodwin said: "The battle has just begun."

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