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Why Frank Luntz Makes Me (slightly) Optimisic

To what extent was Frank Luntz's memo on health care--as reported yesterday in Politico, first by Mike Allen and then by Ben Smith--just a publicity stunt for Luntz? And to what extent was it an actual effort to guide the Republicans as they try to stop President Obama and his allies from enacting comprehensive reform?

I had assumed it was more the former. But it appears Republicans are taking Luntz's advice very seriously.

According to CQ's Drew Armstrong, Luntz addressed a closed door session of congressional Republicans on Wednesday, basically offering the same advice he does in his memo. Resist the temptation to deny that a crisis exists, Luntz advised, and personalize the issue. But demonize government and insist that people pursue the "right" reform. "We've reached out to Frank," House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence told CQ. "I would say, enthuisatically, Frank is back." 

If that's true, it's a fascinating window into the state of the health reform debate--and a key difference between now and the debate over Clintoncare in 1993 and 1994.

A key turning point in that debate, as you may recall, was a similarly celebrated strategic memo--this one written by Bill Kristol and widely circulated in the press. (It's now available for perusal, thanks to Greg Sargent). But the positions Kristol was advising Republicans to take were more nakedly adversarial than the ones Luntz is proposing.

Kristol advised Republicans take on Clinton directly and personally. Luntz suggests Republicans target congressional Democrats but avoid attacking Obama himself.

Kristol also urged Republicans to downplay the problems of the heath care system--a point he emphasized a month after the memo first appeared, when he adapted it for print and added the clear admonishment: "There is no health care crisis," he insisted.) Luntz, by contrast, starts his memo by saying that Republicans need to acknolwedge the public's anxiety and promote themselves as reformers.

To be clear, the substantive argument that Luntz makes about health reform--that Obama-style health reform will destroy the doctor-patient relationship, lead to rationing, etc.--tracks Kristol's pretty closely. 

But Luntz clearly feels that an undisguished attack on health reform--the kind Kristol proposed and that Republicans eventually adopted in 1994--won't work right now. That seems like yet another sign that the political environment for reform is at least marginally better than it was last time around.

*Note: Emphasis on the "slightly" in the headline. The arguments Luntz makes are powerful and hit at reform's biggest popular vulnerability: the perception that it won't help the middle class. Fortunately, the arguments are wrong substantively. More on that later.

--Jonathan Cohn 

Also be sure to read Cohn's breakdown of Lunt'z memo. Click here to read part I and here to read part II.