The Senate Democrats have chosen to debate their federal health care bill at one of the poorest times imaginable. One of the most basic rules of strategy is that we must pick the right time for battle. Despite an overwhelming majority in both houses, the Democrats have chosen to fight this battle when most people are much more concerned about the economy, jobs, and government spending.
The easiest way for Republicans to defeat federal health care is to focus on a central theme of economic recovery:
This new federal program endangers the fragile early signs of economic recovery. Our first priority at this time must be protecting people's jobs from economic uncertainty and their dollar from more government spending.
It is important that Republican phrase this in the positive terms of protecting what we have. People are risk-adverse in protecting what they have while they are risk-seeking in avoiding losses. Emphasizing how bad things are already will make taking the risk seem more worth taking. Emphasizing what we have to lose makes this chance seem less worth it.
Even if Republican believe that signs of recovery are largely an illusion, by arguing that those signs are there, the Democrats will want to agree with them. Republicans cannot win without the support of the sixteen economically conservative Democratic Senators who are the key tipping point here.
Focusing solely in a single economic message rather than an unfocused array of philosophical issues gives the Republicans an edge. It suits today's climate, when people are more worried about jobs and government spending than they are medical care, but it also suits the ground where are fewer economic liberals than Democrats, and there are more economic conservatives than Republicans.
If Republicans choose to fight this as a series of running battles over smaller issues (abortion, the public option, etc.), the Democrats with offer a series of compromises that give them the advantage. The Democrats will frame the choice as "A flawed bill or no health care at all." If the central issue is whether or not we should be doing this now as opposed to six months or a year from now when the economy is in better shape, the Republicans cannot lose. It is much easier to win supporters for the position, "Not now, please!" because politicians can then avoid all those difficult and painful choices that alienate some of the voters.
However, given that we are dealing with politicians, expect both sides to make a series of wrong choices, giving the decision to the side that makes the least worst choices.