It’s the policy, not the rhetoric

If accountability in media actually mattered, Karl Rove should have some explaining to do. After all, just last month, the former Bush Svengali assured his fellow Republicans that the American mainstream would be receptive to GOP efforts to gut Medicare and other entitlement programs.

“People are getting it that these things are unsustainable,” Rove said in April. “For so many people, debt is no longer abstract. It’s more concrete. I don’t know if it’s seeing Greece on TV or what. It’s still tough, but it’s not the political loser it used to be.”

That perspective is not serving Rove’s party well — by trying to end Medicare, Republicans are flailing. In his new Wall Street Journal column, however, Rove urges the political world not to believe their lying eyes — the public really will just love Medicare privatization, just as soon as the GOP and its allies learn to sell it better.

Next year, Republicans must describe their Medicare reforms plainly, set the record straight vigorously when Democrats demagogue, and go on the attack. Congressional Republicans — especially in the House — need a political war college that schools incumbents and challengers in the best way to explain, defend and attack on the issue of Medicare reform. They have to become as comfortable talking about Medicare in the coming year as they did in talking about health-care reform last year.

There needs to be preparation and self-education, followed by extensive town halls, outreach meetings, visits to senior citizen centers, and the use of every available communications tool to get the reform message across.

Republicans continue to misunderstand the nature of the public backlash. Rove, like many GOP leaders, believe they are simply burdened by a communications problem — and that with more effective public relations and outreach efforts, turning Medicare into a privatized voucher scheme will come to enjoy broad support. Those silly Americans just don’t understand how great right-wing policies are, and it’s up to Republicans to get the “message across” more effectively.

Once in a great while, politicians are more or less justified in thinking this way. During the fight over health care reform, for example, polls showed Americans rejecting the Democratic plan, but strongly approving of the ideas within the plan. Large numbers of Americans had been convinced the reform agenda was awful, without knowing what it was they were against.

The GOP Medicare plan isn’t one of those cases. The public knows what Medicare is, and they like it. Americans know what vouchers are, and they don’t like them. Republicans don’t need “a political war college” to tell them how to “explain, defend and attack”; they need a new policy that isn’t a callous, ridiculous plan built on fraudulent data.

I’d also note, by the way, that Rove’s column includes a few more howlers. He describes Medicare privatization as “populist” — yes, making the elderly pay more for health care, while giving millionaires tax cuts, is now “populism” in GOP circles — and describes his right-wing attack operation, American Crossroads, as “independent.” If he typed that with a straight face, I’d be very impressed.

And finally, Rove assures Republicans that losing a New York special election this week in one of the region’s most reliably “red” districts is unimportant, and certainly not a reason to back away from a far-right agenda.

I suspect Democrats hope the GOP takes Rove’s advice.