Are false claims of "death panels" and the rest of it a good partisan political tactic beyond the current debate, so that parties have an incentive to engage in that sort of thing? In particular, is the current debate good for the GOP?
I certainly don't think so. If I was giving advise to the GOP, I'd urge them to do what they can to dial back their rhetoric. It's true that there are likely financial incentives for many conservative leaders to ratchet things up another level, and there are possibilities for short-term PR advantages, but it's a bad deal for the party, on at least four levels.
First, while it's hardly the whole ballgame, there is a battle for Washingtonians -- for conventional wisdom within the beltway. Washington pundits and other insiders like Serious People. A party dominated by birthers and Palin is not Serious. (Yes, it's tricky...sometimes Playing Hardball Well makes someone Serious. Sometimes, saying crazy things is counted as Playing Hardball Well. Fortunately, Washingtonians give cues to let you know you've Gone Too Far).
Second, more broadly, the electoral strategy of 50% + 1 is really a foolish one. The problem, of course, is that if you write off winnable votes (in this case, people who don't like to vote for politicians who say crazy things or associate too closely with those who do), it's awful hard to win, since you might accidentally do something that loses the can't-lose votes you're left with.
The third one is the clincher, though. The GOP certainly could win in 2010 or 2012 with their current tactics. But, and I think this is a fair part of the Bush failure, it really is harder to govern if the promises you make while campaigning are a bunch of nonsense.
And then there's a fourth problem: you say enough crazy things, and you start to lose track of what the truth is, and governing is pretty much impossible if you can't accept with reality.
There's a fine line between normal, slimy, healthy spin, on the one hand, and just saying a bunch of nutty stuff on the other. If I were advising the Republicans, I'd tell them to that they've moved well past that line, and it's time to shape up.