Stop trying to fix Obamacare
Never interrupt your enemies when they are making mistakes.
— Francis J. Underwood (@RepUnderwoodSC) September 29, 2013
One only wishes the real House majority was being whipped by someone who understood this.
Let us proceed with the obvious point: the federal government’s custodians have reached an impasse perhaps unique even over the history of government dysfunction that has been a feature of American politics since the 2010 elections.
That impasse concerns the fate of President Barack Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, better known colloquially as “Obamacare.” On the one side, Democrats have been fighting tooth and nail to force the law to take effect (sans several bits that are highly inconvenient for big business). On the other side, Republicans are fighting to get the law delayed, not merely for big business, but for everyone, until a year from now. The question, as aptly summed up by the Drudge Report Sunday night, is “Who will blink?”
Now, much has been made of the unwillingness of both sides (yes, both) to compromise in this case. Democrats seem determined to treat every last page of the Affordable Care Act (except, of course, for the bits that inconvenience their supporters in the business community) as holy writ, and refuse to wait (with some notable exceptions) to implement it, no matter how dysfunctional that implementation might be.
Republicans, meanwhile, seem willing to do anything to stop the law taking effect, for whatever length of time possible. If they cannot repeal it, they will defund it, and if they cannot defund it, they will delay it. There are any number of problems with this strategy, but I want to focus on the one implied by the fictional Rep. Underwood’s tweet above: That Republicans are trying to stop the Democrats from making a massive political mistake.
Let’s not mince words: The Democrats’ desire to implement Obamacare effective right now is born out of impatience and ideology, not out of political strategy. There is a reason a savvy, Clinton-esque red state Democrat like Sen. Joe Manchin is willing to delay it, and the leadership (which, let us not forget, is ultimately itself led by a blue state legislator with delusions of competence) is not.
Manchin recognizes what his liberal colleagues do not: That Obamacare’s rollout isn’t even properly planned yet. The White House hasn’t even issued guidelines for how Congress is to cope with its disruptive effects, let alone determined what will happen once the exchanges actually open to real, flesh and blood people. Nor have they really considered what its numerous taxes and regulations will do.
Yet like an overexuberant young couple wanting to sleep in the scaffolding of their half-built house, Democrats are determined to implement the law immediately, convinced that it will become popular. This should not be surprising, given that they have operated under the same delusion — that Obamacare will become popular once Americans find out what’s in it — pretty much since they forced the law through Congress, convinced the show of strength would win Americans over. It didn’t then, and it won’t now. In fact, I would venture as far as to say that, if current failings of the law are any guide, the Democrats may be forced to delay it anyway just to escape the political fallout when the half-finished regulatory apparatus collapses in on itself.
Now, let’s also not mince words about this fact: The GOP will buckle to the Democrats over the government shutdown eventually. As Tom Coburn has put it, “You do not take a hostage you are not going to for sure shoot. And we will not for sure shoot this hostage.”
Why will they buckle? Probably because polls already show that the public opposes their strategy, or because Obamacare will end up funded and implemented even with no continuing resolution, or because polls show that people are already prepared to blame them for the shutdown and hold them politically accountable. Take your pick of these reasons, but they will cave for one, or all of them.
What is more, even if by some miracle Obamacare is delayed, the media will spin that act as a heroic concession in the name of governance on the part of Democrats, in order to appease a slavering pack of tea party savages. Never mind the injustice of this framing. Perception is reality, and this is what the conventional wisdom will almost certainly be. In short, Republicans have no leverage to ask for their demands, and even if they did, the resulting narrative would be unhelpful to them.
Moreover, if Obamacare was delayed, it would give the bureaucrats in the administration more time to work out the kinks, thus probably smoothing the eventual implementation of the law. This, in turn, would complete the nightmare scenario of every Republican legislator whereby Obamacare arrives fully prepared as an invincibly popular entitlement that Americans are not prepared to relinquish. Which it is more likely to do, the more time the administration has to prepare.
Now, if the year-long delay happened to place Obamacare’s eventual implementation after the 2014 elections had taken place, by which point Republicans might control the Senate, this gamble might be worth it. But the delay would actually only delay it until a month before those elections, thus giving Democrats what is now more likely to be a source of popularity right before Election Day. Right in time, in fact, to be an October surprise!
In other words, everything the GOP is trying to do actually seems far more likely to protect Democrats from the fallout of Obamacare, and to make the law that much more likely not to fail. Which brings me to my question: Why aren’t the Republicans simply getting out of the way and letting the law do its spite?
Don’t get me wrong. I get it. Many of these senators and congressmen have promised to repeal Obamacare, or at the very least, to throw a monkey wrench into the gears. But political promises are almost always broken by politicians, and it simply is not mathematically possible for them to make good on this promise, at least in the current climate. And it should not escape these people that the two years that provided Republicans with their biggest landslide since 1994 were the years when Republicans actually lacked the power to do anything about the Democrats’ agenda. (When America got a taste of that agenda, unleaded and undiluted, it should be noted that even Massachusetts decided to recoil in horror by electing Scott Brown!)
And that’s presuming the Democrats don’t panic and end up delaying the law themselves when they realize what a train wreck it is. If that happens, then the media will be left to gleefully report on a Democratic Party in disarray, strangled by the signature legislative achievement they’ve fought for since the 1930s. It would be a thundering blow to the Democrats and, for that matter, to the entire progressive philosophy that a paternalist state with good intentions can absorb a huge chunk of the economy and render it noble where it once was craven. Surely it is worth bracing ourselves for a little pain in order to put the lie to that doctrine in possibly the most decisive way since the fall of the Soviet Union?
So to the Republicans in Congress, I say, don’t just do something, stand there. Get out of the way. Let the Democrats own the law they’ve risked so much to defend. It is a point of pride among Democrats to state defiantly that “Obamacare is the law of the land.” Let them see what that law does. Let them reap its consequences.
And in 2014, when the time comes to offer the American people a different alternative, it is quite likely that all you will need do is gently remind the voters that thanks to the people you tried to stop, “Obamacare is the law of the land.”