- - Sunday, December 15, 2013

I once lost a debate in high school because of what the judges called browbeating. The other team was inexperienced and unprepared. My partner and I were arrogant, unrelenting and, worse, unkind. We deserved to lose because we were high-handed and condescending.

Republicans are on the verge of making the same mistake with Obamacare. They’re taking too much glee in the failure of a well-intentioned program.

Here’s the situation: The health care law’s growing pains could well be the Democrats’ undoing in the coming year. The troubles with the website are just the beginning of an almost inevitable series of calamities. More policies will be canceled. Premiums and deductibles will rise. Millions of Americans will be unable to go to their favorite physicians. That’s just to start.

Rather than allowing missteps to simply unfold, Republicans are eager to call attention to themselves by loudly proclaiming, “I told you so.” The result: They could lose a winning hand by gloating about the weakness of their opponents.

Republicans need to remember that the goals of Obamacare are praiseworthy. All Americans should have health care coverage. It’s unfair for people with pre-existing conditions to be denied insurance. With unemployment so high, it’s a blessing that young adults can stay on their parents’ policies until they are 26.

In short, many people stand to benefit greatly if health coverage is improved. Republicans not only know this, but they have offered plans to accomplish similar things for years. They shouldn’t forget that history.

The mantra of the Republican Party has properly been that Obamacare needs to be repealed and replaced. The second part is the more important. But no one expects the GOP to devise and pass a full-fledged fix of the flawed system. Nor should Republicans attempt to go that far because, they, too, would probably fail.

Republicans need to make constructive, incremental suggestions about how to repair the health care system. They should offer these proposals deliberately and soon. However, they should be humble and sympathetic as they roll out alternatives and especially when they criticize the law as it is.

The battle over Obamacare is not a game. The law touches almost every American. That’s why Obamacare moves public opinion polls and why it looms so large for the midterm elections next year.

Medical care isn’t the only major issue in the fight. A key question is trust. Voters are tired of bickering, gridlock and dysfunction in Washington. If a promising, new program as massive and important as Obamacare falters, incumbents in general and the reputation of government in particular will be seriously undermined.

Republicans would be wise to embrace the message of competence — not just over health policy, but throughout government. In fact, the wise politician in either party will run on the promise of reforming government. Republicans are well situated to make that case, but a growing number of Democrats will do the same as they distance themselves from the president.

The clever platform in 2014 and 2016 will include health care reform and tax reform as part of government reform.

As for health care, politicians should remember that they cannot win by wishing people ill. Voters reward generosity of spirit, whether from liberals or conservatives. Republicans should keep this in mind as they consider unleashing yet another merciless round of attacks against the struggling health care law.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum is a Fox News contributor and president of BGR Public Relations.

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