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.
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.
There are 40 to 50 different healthcare bills sponsored by lawmakers in the House alone, Moffit said. But they all share a handful of key tenets:
Republican-style healthcare reform starts with the assumption that the current employer-based system discriminates against the self-employed, the unemployed, and small businesses. Republicans would level the playing field by reforming the tax code to create refundable tax credits of up to $2,300 per individual and $5,700 per family to purchase insurance. Republicans also mostly agree on the need to give individuals, small businesses, and trade associations the ability to pool together to acquire insurance in lower group rates. This would include allowing states to set up a high-risk insurance pool for its sickest citizens.
But these ideas have yet to reach the public, perhaps because Republicans lack a single leader with a platform to articulate them. "They are not only still casting about for a message, they are still casting about for a messenger," Allen Louderback, a Luray business consultant and former GOP Virginia state delegate, told me. "I don't know if they will find another Ronald Reagan, but that is who they should be looking for."
Right now the role of messenger has been splintered among half a dozen lawmakers in both the House and Senate. But no one has the national heft to consider facing off against Obama in the political ring-either for the coming legislative battles or in the 2012 elections.
The leadership void in the conservative movement was made clear at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference-the annual gathering of the movement. There the biggest cheers went to former Vice President Dick Cheney. As the crowd chanted "Run, Dick, Run," liberals everywhere probably were secretly joining in the serenade, believing that a Republican Party forced to reach back into its past would be an easier opponent for an on-the-ropes Democratic Party.
Some conservative young guns did impress at CPAC: Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty boldly acknowledged his faith during a speech, and upstart Florida Senate candidate Marco Rubio gave an impassioned plea that "2010 is a referendum on the very identity of our nation." But until conservatives can coalesce around one Republican standard-bearer, lawmakers like Cantor are making individual pitches in their districts.
Before he rode into Luray, Cantor spent the morning meeting constituents in Orange, Va. Located just five miles from the historical home of James Madison, the father of the Constitution, downtown Orange houses mostly two-story red brick office buildings along a street where banners advertise an upcoming all-you-can-eat pancake supper at the local Methodist church. On the morning of Cantor's visit, Faye and Curtis Gish shuttered their office supply store and went a few blocks to the county office building.
For the past decade they've thought about adding healthcare for their nine employees. But the cost to do so would require letting some of their staff go. Now they are worried that federal mandates may force their hand. So they went to listen to Cantor at a breakfast roundtable.
Cantor spent about an hour with the Gishes and others, including the owners of a hardware store, a winery, and a frameworks shop. It was a businesslike discussion dominated by a sense that Washington's current legislative agenda has placed small business owners under a veil of uncertainty-uncertainty over future regulations and future taxes, to name a few. But when Cantor turned the discussion to healthcare, everyone in the room burst into nervous laughter.
"I don't know if anyone wants to talk about that?" he asked sheepishly. The responses come fast:
"Have you read the bill?"
"We don't know what it is really."
Cantor responded by discussing how the Democrats' healthcare push is based on the premise that the nation needs to reduce the number of uninsured through mandates that prescribe for everyone a federally approved insurance plan. But he said the Republicans believe the right focus is to bring down costs, which will increase access to coverage and subsequently reduce the number of uninsured.
Cantor then touted another major element of most Republican plans: reforming medical malpractice insur ance. Ending frivolous lawsuits could save $54 billion over 10 years, with further savings expected as doctors stop ordering unnecessary procedures to protect themselves against lawsuits. Cantor also says Republicans want to give Americans the ability to purchase policies across state lines to increase competition and drive down costs. "All of us should be able to go in and have 30 plans to choose from, not four," he told the Orange business leaders.
These are ideas that most Republicans can rally around. But with Democrats in Washington trying to restart their stalled healthcare agenda-and with a new bill from the White House that nudges to the left the already-passed Senate healthcare version-Republicans remain most unified in their opposition to Obama. They see last week's bipartisan summit as a ploy by the left to exclaim, "We tried," before continuing their frontal healthcare assault in the face of sustained opposition.
Republicans next expect Democrats to try to push a healthcare bill through using reconciliation, a maneuver that would allow a bill to pass on a simple majority vote, bypassing a Republican filibuster, nullifying the implications of Brown's election and risking the further wrath of voters.
In this environment, many Republicans see their best option as letting the Democrats walk the healthcare plank. "We will certainly accept the mantra of the 'party of no' when it comes to handing over one-sixth of our nation's economy, lock, stock, and barrel to the American government," said Rep. Phil Gingrey, a Republican from Georgia who is also a doctor.
• Lower healthcare premiums
• Guarantee affordable coverage for patients with preexisting conditions.
• Protect seniors' Medicare benefits
• No tax increases
• Encourage small businesses to offer healthcare coverage, without taxing job creation
• Enact medical liability reform
• Empower the doctor-patient relationship-not government intrusion
• Prohibit abortion funding
• No entitlement expansions
• Reduce the deficit