This isn’t really what I’d call a victory, but I’ll take it.
On election night, I was sure that Obamacare was doomed. It seemed certain that the safety net would be ravaged, that all our painfully hard-won gains would be rolled back. But just a few months later, that’s looking a lot less likely. I didn’t expect to hear, from Paul Ryan of all people, that “Obamacare is the law of the land” after a Republican-controlled Congress failed miserably in their attempt to replace it and then apparently gave up on repeal.
It was always obvious that the Republicans had no plan. As many pundits pointed out, it’s remarkable that their strategy was to attack Obamacare from the left: arguing that premiums and deductibles were too high, or that it didn’t cover enough people, or that it didn’t let people see any doctor or get any treatment they wished.
As long as the GOP was out of power, this was a feasible strategy. They could launch pointless repeal bill after pointless repeal bill, all while making grandiose claims about how much better their undefined alternative would be. But once they were in power, they found themselves in the position of the dog that caught the car. They suddenly had to deliver on their promises, and their ill-conceived and hastily slapped-together plan turned out to be universally hated and immediately went down in flames.
The Republicans did this to themselves by refusing to be explicit about their real goals. They object to the idea of taxing the well-off to pay for health care for the poor; and they’re philosophically opposed to the idea that the government has a responsibility to protect the health of its citizens. And they could have said so! They could have argued, Ayn Rand style, that people should fend for themselves and that the free market, if left to itself, will magically deliver a better outcome for everyone. I don’t think that argument is correct, but they could have made it.
But they were afraid to make the case for what they really wanted. Despite all the time they’ve spent bashing Obamacare, they knew it was more successful than they let on. That’s why they were scared to vote for repeal without having an alternative on hand, which put them in an impossible dilemma:
There was no plan that could be both acceptable to conservative anti-government ideology and to the broader public. The dilemma Republicans find themselves in now — a plan that subsidizes too little coverage to be acceptable to vulnerable members, and too much coverage for the party’s right wing — has always been unavoidable… Ryan is being turned into the fall guy for eight years of lies that the entire Republican party, himself included, told the country and itself.
The Democrats, for all the complaints I have about them, didn’t have this problem because they put actual thought and effort into their legislation. As Jonathan Cohn points out, Obamacare came about in its present form because the party spent years hashing out its internal differences and engaging in tough negotiations to bring stakeholders like hospitals and insurers on board. We progressives can decry the bill as more moderate and incremental than we’d prefer, but it passed, and it’s working.
The Republicans, by contrast, never put any deeper thought into the issue beyond chanting “Freedom good, Obamacare bad”. When they were in a position to act, they had no plan to act on, only empty sloganeering. The most pathetic thing is their lament that they never knew health care could be so complicated.
I don’t want to sound too optimistic, because we’re not out of the woods. Even if they can’t repeal Obamacare, the GOP can and surely will do everything in their power to hobble it – ordering the IRS not to enforce the mandate, refusing to expand Medicaid in red states – doing their utmost to cause the death-spiral outcome they once claimed was inevitable. (I’m expecting we’ll soon see legal harassment of insurance companies that participate in the exchanges.) They can cause enormous mischief over the next few years, even if they can’t tear the law down entirely, and that will have a cost measured in human lives.
This won’t be the last time that Republican disconnection from reality comes back to bite them. They’re not a normal political party anymore. Their obsession with destroying President Obama’s legacy has crippled their ability to make the tradeoffs and rational calculations that democracy requires. In short, they can’t govern. The Democrats can filibuster and otherwise obstruct (and they should), but if anything saves us from Republican evil, it’ll be Republican incompetence.