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Associated Press/Photo by Harry Hamburg

More than 'no'?

Politics | Republicans are united in opposition to President Obama's healthcare agenda, but voters want to hear more about their alternatives

Issue: "Fighting poverty," March 13, 2010

LURAY and ORANGE, Va.-The snow still hugged the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains like a cotton blanket on a recent February morning at a restored historic train station in Luray, in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley. More than two dozen mostly Republican Page County residents had come together to learn about the happenings of a place that is less than a two-hour drive away but has lately felt as far off as Russia to these plus thousands of other voters across the nation: the U.S. Capitol.

Rep. Eric Cantor, the Republi­can Whip and the congressman from this Virginia district, has come by to address the group of retirees and local business leaders.

While on Capitol Hill, it is the whip's job to rally party support for or against certain votes. But at the meeting in Luray, in the midst of a congressional recess, Cantor wanted to whip up locals in his district behind Republican alternatives to the big government push by Washington's current Democratic majority.

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Cantor's brief talk in Luray reflected the competing impulses in a Republican Party that senses a historic opportunity for electoral gains in November: Should Republicans try to focus the public's attention on what they see as bad elements in the Obama agenda, or should they spend more time highlighting their own plans for healthcare and the economy?

Cantor, who wears glasses and boasts a chiseled chin and a full head of brushed-back dark hair, spent several minutes on the former-attacking the incursion of the "terrible policy agenda" led by President Obama. But soon Cantor's whip efforts became derailed as some in the Luray Train Depot lashed back:

"You keep saying Washington is doing this and Washington is doing that," exclaimed Gary Drum, 57, a retired Marine. "But you are Washington." Cantor, on the defensive, responded by giving Drum a quick lecture on Congress' current calculus: "There is one-party rule in Washington," he said of the Democrats. "They control every lever of power."

Indeed, with just 178 out of the 435 seats in the House, Republicans, as Cantor said, "can't stop anything." But the voters at the Luray meeting say they are tired of partisan bickering and are ready for solutions.

"The term recidivism has moved from the penal system to the Congress of the United States," complained Dave Bull, 70, a Luray retiree. He explained that lawmakers keep repeating the undesirable "us versus them" mentality as the best way to appeal to voters back home and ensure reelection. But the message of Bull, Drum, and others in Luray suggests that they believe Washington has hit rock bottom, and Republicans would be wise not merely to cast themselves as the lambs to the Democrats' lions.

The fact that Democrats spent almost all of last year failing to recognize that most Americans do not want a full-body makeover of the nation's healthcare system has given the minority Republicans an opening. This opportunity became more tangible after the election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts.

But Republicans so far continue to believe that what plays best in Peoria is steady doses of Obama, Pelosi, and Reid bashing, seasoned by sprinkles of their own substitute legislative strategies. The result: GOP plans don't seem to be reaching a nation of voters ready to be wooed. "I have no idea what their message is," retired New Jersey transplant Dick Mazziotti, 68, told me when I asked him why he had decided to attend Cantor's Luray, Va., appearance.

Various Republicans have put forth plans, but there really is no unified Republican alternative to the Democratic healthcare plan. Ask Republican House leaders where their plan is, and they will direct you to a website, healthcare.gop.gov, that contains a 219-page bill-1,771 pages less than House Democrats' healthcare tome. Senate Republicans do not have a single bill.

The White House seemed to sense this paucity last week ahead of the much-ballyhooed bipartisan summit on healthcare. White House Communi­ca­tions Director Dan Pfeiffer tried to press Republi­cans to bring a single alternative plan to the meeting.

But Robert Moffit, the Heritage Foundation's healthcare policy director, says the very absence of a single GOP plan reflects a different philosophical approach to tackling problems with the nation's healthcare system. "The healthcare sector is one of the most complex in our economy, and Republicans believe that you can't get it right by overhauling it in a single bill," he told me. "The reality is that would create a lot of unforeseen problems."

Voters seem to sense this: A Rasmussen poll released the day after President Obama revealed his own new $950 billion healthcare legislation last week showed that 63 percent of Americans think the best strategy is to pass smaller bills that address each problem individually.

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