Getting off the ropes

GETTING OFF THE ROPES…. Being in the House minority is necessarily awful, but it’s not all bad — the status makes winning harder, but it makes attacking easier.

It’s probably just the nature of the process. Having a majority means having to defend an agenda; being stuck in a minority means getting to say, “Look how badly the majority is screwing up.”

This week, the House of Representatives officially changed hands, and the new GOP leadership got right to work tackling one of its top priorities: gutting America’s health care system. At the same time, we saw Democrats go on the offensive with more fire in the belly than we’ve seen in a while.

Indeed, Dems aren’t half bad at this when they’re actually working together, and this week we saw the entirety of the party — White House, Senate, House, and campaign committees — working collectively to challenge the Republican push.

Jonathan Cohn had a good take on the developments.

For most of last year, Democrats were playing defense on health care, responding to Republican criticisms or, in many cases, trying desperately to change the subject of debate. Now something has changed. Congressional Democrats are challenging Republicans, daring them to come out against the bill’s more popular provisions. The Democratic National Committee is aggressively distributing talking points. According to an account in the New York Times, Democrats will soon have a campaign-style war room for making their case. It’s almost as if the Democrats want this fight now.

Of course, they may not have a choice. Republicans have made repeal a top priority, so the fight is going to take place whether or not Democrats want it. But I think it also reflects a changing dynamic, as well. According to Greg Sargent, who was among the first to spot the shift, House Democrats in particular are aware of the opportunity they missed last year, while the party and most of its leaders were trying so hard to save endangered incumbents. They think they’re in a stronger position now, since people are starting to see the law’s benefits and repeal will mean changing an increasingly favorable status quo.

It also helps that the Republicans finally have to do some governing. And governing requires the kind of specifics Republicans could avoid when they were merely campaigning to win office. Thursday was a perfect example: Before bringing their bill up for a vote, Republicans got a cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office. And that CBO estimate was full of grim, though hardly unexpected, predictions: An extra $240 $230 billion in deficits, 32 million more uninsured, and health coverage that was both less comprehensive and less widely available. It gave Democrats an opportunity to pounce and they didn’t miss it.

Quite right. Indeed, Dems have done quite a bit of pouncing this week, hammering not only the repeal plan, but also the Republicans breaking their pledge on spending, ignoring related campaign-season promises, and screwing up the oath, among other things.

In fact, this week, for the first time in a very long while, I noticed that Senate Dems held a press conference to slam House Republicans. That’s pretty unusual. Rumor has it Chuck Schumer is taking a new, more hands-on role in the shaping the caucus’ aggressive style, and we should expect more of this.

With this in mind, I think Dems are off to a relatively good start after a few days. I don’t know if they’ll stick with it or start splintering when times get tougher, but I do know the party isn’t responding to the midterm “shellacking” by pouting and retreating, as may have been their inclination in the past.

And all things being equal, the harder Democrats are prepared to fight, the better their odds of faring better in 2012 than they did in 2010, and the more spirited Dems’ stand on health care, the stronger the public support is likely to be.