Ask yourself this: All these months later, do you yet know what the health care plan means for your family’s bottom line, your taxes, your insurance? It’s this nebulousness, magnified by endless Senate versus House squabbling, that has allowed reform to be caricatured by its foes as an impenetrable Rube Goldberg monstrosity, a parody of deficit-ridden big government. Since most voters are understandably confused about what the bills contain, the opponents have been able to attribute any evil they want to Obamacare, from death panels to the death of Medicare, without fear of contradiction.That's Frank Rich in his column yesterday (my emphasis), making a fundamental mistake about how attack politics works. Once again: opponents of the president do not, in fact, need permission to caricature the majority party's ideas, nor are there ground rules that detail in which cases opponents of the president are allowed to make stuff up about legislation the majority supports. Certainly, politics is not some sort of carefully adjudicated debating society, where repeating a claim that's been discredited gets points deducted, or a rhetorical version of a western showdown in which the White Hats can defeat the Black Hats with their communications skill and agility, leaving the other side sputtering. (Without fear of contradiction? Only on outlets in which they control who gets to speak. On regular news shows, those sorts of things are contradicted all the time).
Here are the real ground rules. Whatever Obama and the Democrats do, Republicans are going to oppose them. Republicans will say whatever they think will poll well; Rush and Beck and friends will say whatever they think will help their ratings; Sarah Palin will say whatever odd thing pops into her head. Then, a quarter of the nation is going to believe those things, because they get their political information from sources that present those views, and only those views, as fact.
And for everyone else...sure, Obama should complement policy with his best rhetoric. It can't hurt. The bottom line, however, is that the economy bounces back, Obama's popularity will rebound; if there's a double-dip recession, people will desert him. Meanwhile, what Obama should continue doing is to try to pass what he can of his agenda, working (as Richard Neustadt recommended) to keep his influence as strong as he can make it. How much time and energy should he devote to preventing Republicans from attacking him and smearing his ideas? Approximately none.