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GOP health care refusal could backfire

By Julian Zelizer, Special to CNN
  • Julian Zelizer: GOP can benefit if policy fails; already succeeded in holding up Obama agenda
  • Zelizer: But they have neglected fixing internal divisions and ideological weaknesses
  • If health care bill succeeds, they will risk being called "party of no," he writes
  • He says Democrats will remember GOP's scorched-earth strategy and get back one day

Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. His new book is "Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security From World War II to the War on Terrorism," published by Basic Books. Zelizer writes widely about current events.

(CNN) -- Most Republicans have opposed President Obama's health care bill from the first day he proposed reform. If the House passes the Senate bill in the next few days, it will probably do so without any Republican support.

In many ways, Republicans can benefit politically from their tough stand against the health care legislation. If the program does not work as expected and proves to be politically unpopular, Republicans can say they warned America. If health care premiums continue to rise and Americans feel that their policies have not been improved, Democrats will be to blame.

Regardless of whether the legislation passes, Republicans can already claim a victory, given that the struggle for legislation has lasted more than a year and tied up the rest of the Democratic agenda.

Opposing health care also provided conservatives with a rallying point that re-energized the party faithful and resulted in the creation of the Tea Party movement. Finally, the battle over health care was part of the reason that Democrats lost their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

Yet Republicans should be wary about celebrating too much. The strategy of obstruction poses significant risks.

The first risk is the most obvious. If this legislation proves to be popular, Republicans can easily be branded as the party of no.

Republicans have a long history in the 20th century of having to defend their record of opposition to popular programs. President Dwight Eisenhower famously told fellow Republicans to accept Social Security in the 1950s or suffer the political consequences. "Should any political party," Eisenhower said, "attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history."

During his campaign for the presidency in 1980, Ronald Reagan had to defend himself against charges that he had opposed the creation of Medicare in 1965.

A second danger is that Republicans have been so focused on health care, they have lost precious time dealing with the internal divisions and ideological weaknesses that were exposed in 2008. After that election, most Republicans were prepared to take a hard look at what had gone wrong. Some pointed to the fact that the party had been in power for so long, it became accustomed to the trappings of power as well as to the electoral benefits of government spending

Republicans were also aware that their party had run out of steam in terms of generating ideas to solve the problems that America faced in the 21st century.

When confronted with issues such as climate change or health care, Republicans instinctively turned to slogans about the free market that didn't offer much in the way of concrete solutions. This marked a stark contrast to the 1970s, when Republicans had emerged as the party of ideas after investing in think tanks like CATO and the American Enterprise Institute to challenge liberal dominance.

Moreover, the divisions among the different elements of the Republican Party have hampered Republican efforts in recent primary battles such as Texas and Florida. Without compelling ideas to unite Republicans -- such as Reagan's promotion of supply-side economics and anti-communism in the 1980s -- the party will continue to have a difficult time coming together.

A final danger is that the battle against health care will accelerate partisan warfare, which will come back to bite Republicans when or if they regain power. One of the many reasons that partisan polarization continues to intensify with each new Congress is that legislators come to Washington with powerful memories of earlier battles and seek retribution.

Whether it is Republicans thinking of the defeat of Robert Bork's Supreme Court nomination in 1987 or Democrats thinking about the Republican effort to impeach Bill Clinton in 1998, partisanship breeds more partisanship.

This year, Republicans have taken minority obstruction to new extremes, as was evident when Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby placed a unilateral hold on all of Obama's executive branch nominees. And Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning was willing to single-handedly tie up a bill extending jobless benefits.

They have undertaken a scorched-earth legislative strategy. Democrats who have been frustrated with Republicans' use of the legislative process to hamper Obama's agenda will remember just how effectively a minority can obstruct.

Given that political reforms to diminish obstruction do not seem to be right around the corner, political retribution is a more likely outcome when control turns over to Republicans.

As the health care debate finally reaches a conclusion, Republicans need to realize that they still have a lot of work to do if they want to rebuild their party. Polls show that the public still does not think highly of the GOP, even as support for Obama and the Democratic Congress declines.

A recent leaked document from the Republican National Committee suggests that the party is planning to base its 2010 campaign on fear and negative attacks, rather than hope and ideas. Sometimes, in the enthusiasm over a battle, armies can lose sight of the war.

Republicans might have regained their fighting spirit over health care, but the strategy could prove to be costlier than they expect.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian E. Zelizer.