August 13, 2013

The other day I asked a nonpartisan expert in House races how the battle over Obamacare implementation will play in the 2014 Congressional races. His conclusion: The party that wins over independents on the issue will be the one who most convincingly demonstrates a genuine interest in fixing our health care system.

This comes to mind again with the latest dust-up over Obamacare’s implementation, which Republicans are citing as the latest sign it’s a “train wreck.” As Robert Pear reports: “the administration has delayed until 2015 a significant consumer protection in the law that limits how much people may have to spend on their own health care.” Obamacare’s limits on what people pay as part of deductibles and co-payments has been put on hold.

Ezra Klein has a nice summary of what this means in policy terms. As he notes, this is a small provision relative to the whole law, and the Obama administration is showing appropriate flexibility in implementing a complicated, ambitious reform. Klein also notes the downside: we still don’t know whether the law — including the protections designed to limit costs, particularly for the chronically ill, who would blow past the limits fastest — will work. More delays or changes may be necessary.

Not all opponents of the law are claiming this latest news proves the law is a “train wreck.” As Ramesh Ponnuru put it, “sometimes a glitch is just a glitch.” Ponuru concluded: “this provision of the law will be able to be implemented.”

But some GOP officials are grabbing on to it. “Yet another White House Obamacare delay,” tweeted RNC chair Reince Priebus, utilizing the ubiquitous #trainwreck hashtag.

Republicans seem to think that if they kick enough noise about the law, it will reinforce the narrative that it is a catastrophe, helping them in 2014. But whether or not that will work among persuadable voters — for all I know the main target of it is the base — this particular case reinforces the incoherence and even potential political weakness of the overall GOP posture on health care.

After all, the GOP position is to repeal Obamacare, which is to say, to repeal all of the law’s consumer protections forever. Now Republicans are hitting Obama for delaying a portion of the consumer protections for a year?

To be fair, Republicans can argue coherently that today’s news shows that the consumer protections are unworkable while simultaneously arguing that the whole law must be repealed. But their criticism inevitably leads back to a question: do they support such protections for consumers in principle, or do they oppose them?

All of which leads back to how this all will play politically. Democrats can continue to stand behind the law’s general goals — expanding coverage to the uninsured; protecting consumers; reining in insurance industry abuse — while signaling a willingness to fix the law as we go along. Indeed, the expert in House races told me Dems must signal this flexibility or put themselves at risk. But he also notes that the GOP position — pushing for full repeal without proposing a meaningful alternative — is also risky, because it could make Republicans look unwilling to solve people’s problems, a potentially toxic position among less partisan voters.

Drew Altman, the president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which has done sophisticated polling on Obamacare for years, agrees. Dems, he told me, “can stand on the benefits of the law, which are popular, and talk about improving the law. That’s a position which will be popular with the public.”

This isn’t to say Dems will win the battle over Obamacare. The law remains unpopular and implementation is a big unknown. Rather, the point is that the GOP position is not a clear winner either. Republicans know this, which is why they are claiming yet again that they will roll out an alternative to Obamacare this fall. But herein lies the Obamacare Trap. If that effort crashes and burns under conservative criticism — as it did last time — it will reveal yet again that Republicans simply have no vision for a meaningful role for government to play in fixing the health care system, whether it comes to the consumer protections that are being debated today or anywhere else.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.
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