It is abundantly obvious - as I noted here at length on July 8, and so many others have reported each day - that the ruling Democrats have been having a devil of a time assembling a broadly acceptable health care reform package, in part because the devil is always in the details. President Obama has naturally taken a hit in the polls, particularly among swing-voting independents who are worried about the price tag and the potential long-term impact on the budget deficit. Clearly, there are tensions within the congressional Democratic coalition, particularly between the blue-state liberals and the swing/red-state moderates, and it will take time to herd them together.
And yet, despite Obama's downtick in the polls, one stat in the new Washington Post-ABC News survey is worth a mention. When people were asked whom they trusted most to handle the health care issue - Obama, or the Republicans in Congress - Obama waxed the GOP by a margin of 54 to 34 percent.
Translation: Notwithstanding all the headaches that Obama and the Democrats are suffering during this sausage-making process, Americans have far less faith in the party that failed them on health care, as on so many other issues, during the past eight years. And I doubt that their faith in the GOP will be revived by the latest performance of the Republican national chairman.
The chairman appeared yesterday at the National Press Club in Washington. His topic was health care reform, and his intended target was Obama. The problem was that the chairman really had nothing to say, in part because he has no clue about the issue at hand, and in part he ostensibly leads a party that, on this issue, really has nothing to say.
So let us ponder the vacuum that is Michael Steele:
The real problem was not that his prepared remarks were comprised of buzz words crafted for him by Republican strategist/wordsmith Alex Castellanos. (It was clear that Castellanos had tutored Steele to dismiss health care reform as an "experiment," because Steele repeated the pejorative more than two dozen times; and that Castellanos had tutored Steele to dismiss health care reform as "too much, too soon, too fast," because Steele repeated variations of that theme a half dozen times, pleading for Obama to "slow down"...which is a fascinating theme anyway, given the fact that the GOP is dismissing as "too fast" a crucial issue that has percolated on the national agenda for the past 60 years.)
No, Steele's real problem came later, during the question-and-answer session. Three exchanges vividly illustrate why the Republicans have been driven to the margins of governance.
Q: "Is it morally acceptable for 30 to 40 million Americans to be without health insurance?"
Steele: "I don't know if that's the consideration for politicians versus a pastor."
Q: "Do Republicans support an individual requirement to get coverage?"
Looking flummoxed, the chairman clearly had no idea what the question was about, despite the fact that this issue - whether Americans should be required to sign up for coverage as part of health care reform - was debated extensively during the 2008 campaign. Steele: "As an individual requirement? What do you mean by 'an individual requirement'? To require individuals to get health coverage? Again, that is one of those areas where there's, there's, different opinions by some in the House and the Senate on this...Look, I don't do policy."
(Translation: He does slogans, not substance.)
And then there was the piece de resistance...
Q: "Why didn't the Republicans, when they held both houses and the White House, do something substantial to address the health care issue?"
Steele: “Well, I think that, you know, there were efforts along the way."
He cited the GOP Congress' passage of the expensive Medicare prescription drug law, but then, apparently remembering that the conservatives in his party actually hate this law, he quickly added, "There's always been a debate about that particular piece of legislation." And then he took a second stab at the core question, about why the ruling Republicans did so little to address health care during the Bush years, why in essence they didn't do policy.
Steele again: "The other reality is, you know, the will to do it...There has been just a general lack of focus on this issue, by many."