Rule One of politics: When you have the advantage, don’t allow your opponents to turn the tables.

House Republicans violated this rule when they decided to make repeal of the health care law their first major act in the 112th Congress. The mistake will haunt them for years.

It was a surprising error from a leadership that showed shrewd judgment and exceptional discipline during President Barack Obama’s first two years. John Boehner is now speaker of the House because he and his party focused on demonizing everything Obama did and winning the public argument over both the health care plan and the stimulus.

By contrast, the health care debate that was to have taken place this week would have put Boehner and the Republicans on the defensive. On Saturday, Republican leaders — to their credit — postponed all legislative action this week following the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona and the deaths of so many at her town meeting.

Already, that impending vote had forced the GOP to fudge its pledge to respect the minority’s rights, since the leadership ruled out any amendments to its bill. The inconsistency led Boehner to produce one of the lamest sound bites of his career. “Well, listen, I promised a more open process,” he said. “I didn’t promise that every single bill was going to be an open bill.”

In other words, he was for an open process before he was against it, and it depends on what the meaning of the word open is. Not a good start.

Moreover, the GOP highlighted the extent to which this legislation is all about politics by giving it the jarringly unpoetic name, Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act. This is less a bill than a piece of propaganda.

But the biggest problem is the signal this vote sends about how the Republicans plan to use their new power. Rather than leading off with positive action showing what the party stands for, they start by tearing something down before they have anything to put in its place. Do they really want us to believe that theirs will be a reactive majority (unless you prefer the word reactionary)?

And how much of what they do will be defined by the imperative of throwing bones to the tea party movement, which sees health care repeal as a holy cause?

Boehner and his colleagues could have been more deliberate and serious by first holding hearings to highlight what they see as the flaws in Obama’s approach and to begin the work of writing a bill of their own. They could have questioned the assumptions behind the health law in a systematic way.

The Congressional Budget Office issued a painstaking study finding that the repeal bill would add $230 billion to the federal deficit over the next decade. Boehner dismissed it: “CBO is entitled to their opinion.”

The CBO was not expressing an opinion in the way that, say, “I prefer green ties to red ties” is an opinion. And even though the GOP did issue a report challenging the CBO, its attitude toward neutral accounting was captured by the report’s title: Obamacare: A Budget-Busting Job-Killing Law.

In the meantime, Democrats have never been as united behind the health care law as they are now. Most of them, even some of the 13 Democrats remaining in the House who voted against the bill last year, see this debate as an opportunity to point out all the popular provisions the Republicans would scrap.

Consider, for example, that voting for repeal is, in part, a vote for a tax increase because it would involve eliminating a slew of tax credits, including $40 billion over a decade to help small businesses buy coverage. Couldn’t Republicans at least keep those nice business-friendly tax credits?

Then there is the presumption that by repealing the law in its entirety the House is speaking for “the people.” Wrong. Even a Fox News poll, taken last month, found that only 27 percent of Americans wanted to repeal the health law entirely, while 32 percent wanted to repeal parts of it. On the other side, 16 percent wanted to keep it as is, and 15 percent wanted to expand it.

This poll and many others do show that supporters of the law have a lot of work to do. House Republicans will be helping them to do it. Maybe someday their bill, to pick up the rather violent rhetoric of its title, will be seen as the Republican Majority-Killing Repeal Act of 2011.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group


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