December 18, 2013

The Journal Gazette of Fort Wayne, Indiana, reports on a fascinating exchange between GOP Rep. Marlin Stutzman and a local meat market owner, Lee Albright, who likes the Affordable Care Act and quizzed the Congressman about the real world implications of the GOP repeal stance:

Albright doesn’t want the Affordable Care Act repealed, which Stutzman and the Republican-controlled House have voted to do numerous times. Albright told his congressman that his monthly payment for family health coverage will drop from $3,800 to $1,700 by enrolling in a plan offered through the much-maligned law.

Albright said most of his dozen employees also are enrolling in Affordable Care Act plans and will have coverage for the first time. “If the Republican Party thinks they’re going to kill Obamacare, you guys need to realize that those nine people that I add on, are they going to vote Republican ever again if you take their health care from them?”

Stutzman responded: “No, probably not.”

The Republican seems to be implicitly conceding not only that the GOP repeal stance is politically problematic, but also that the Republican position constitutes taking health coverage away from people.

Stutzman doesn’t appear to be vulnerable, but the episode nicely illustrates the broader problems with the repeal stance, i.e., that the de facto GOP position right now is to return to the old system, and that this isn’t a palatable alternative, even though Obamacare is unpopular.

Indeed, at the same town hall, the Congressman also conceded to constituents there are “several” alternative plans being debated internally among Republicans, and that in 2014, Republicans might introduce something. But as Steve Benen notes, offering an alternativewill invite comparisons between it and Obamacare on how many people it would cover and which one offers better consumer protections:

Ultimately, that’s the “trap” GOP officials need to be mindful of. On the one hand, they can continue to offer nothing in the way of an alternative, effectively telling the public they’re not serious about the issue and they prefer to take cheap shots rather than govern. On the other, they can build a consensus around an Obamacare alternative that almost certainly won’t be nearly as good as the ACA. (Remember, the basic framework of the Affordable Care Act was the Republican policy up until a few years ago.)

Even some Obamacare foes have admitted Republicans probably won’t offer any alternative, because it would then be subjected to political attacks. And as Byron York has reported, it’s not clear there is any GOP consensus alternative. York, too, posited that Republicans could find themselves in an “Obamacare Trap,” as repeal grows less realistic and forces them to pay lip service to fixing the law, legitimizing it. (The Fix made similar points today.) But Republicans who have edged away from repeal have gotten smacked down by the right.

Harry Reid suggested today that Obamacare would ultimately be a “net positive” in 2014. I’d say that’s overly optimistic. The law faces more hurdles and could continue weighing Dems down. If the law fails over time, it’ll be a massive fiasco for them.

But it’s sinking in with the D.C. press corps that right now, it’s obvious that the GOP repeal stance is also problematic. Whatever the feints of individual Dem candidates and lawmakers, the Dem party committees are basing their messaging on this premise. The state parties are also pushing hard on the local level on the idea that repeal represents returning to the old system, potentially harming millions.

For Dems this strategy is currently about fighting the Obamacare wars to a draw, hopefully neutralizing the issue. But if enrollment piles up and the law works okay, the GOP repeal stance could get less tenable over time, and you could see more exchanges like the one above with Rep. Stutzman. If so, Republicans will have to hope that the Next Big Obamacare Disaster is truly epic. But at a certain point, Obamacare may simply fade from the headlines. Since the demand for total repeal is the basis for the GOP’s entire 2014 strategy, it’s unclear what would happen then.

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