Amid all the debate over whether Republicans will ever offer an alternative to Obamacare — and whether “repeal and replace” will ever be anything more than a slogan — one thing is worth reiterating: The American public doesn’t believe there is any Republican alternative to the health care law.

That’s borne out in polls — more on that in a moment — but it’s rarely confirmed by Republicans themselves.

That’s why this exchange between GOP Rep. Dennis Ross of Florida and a constituent is so interesting: In it, the Republican Congressman excoriates his own party for failing to offer its own health reform plan, admits Republicans are unlikely to change this before the election, and even says Republicans have lost “credibility” on the issue, turning it into a loser for them. Think Progress has the video:

Asked by a constituent why he thinks repealing Obamacare’s protections is a good idea, Rep. Ross replies: “I don’t.” Though Ross has repeatedly voted to repeal the law, he cites his own health reform plan – which includes well known Republican ideas like HSAs and mechanisms for “temporary” coverage for people with preexisting conditions – and laments that the GOP has not coalesced behind a comprehensive alternative. He says:

“I think one of the most unfortunate things my party did the last three years was not offer an alternative to health care…I wish we had an alternative. For the next six months, we’re going to go into an election, knowing that we’re not going to do anything to address health care. Because we’ve gone so far in the last few years saying No, that we don’t have an alternative to say Yes to. And I think that the American public, when they go to vote, are going to look at credibility before they look at substance.”

Well, there you have it.

As I’ve been documenting, multiple GOP candidates are finding it harder and harder to articulate a credible stance on Obamacare. They increasingly feel the political need to say they support Obamacare’s general goals, such as the expansion of coverage or the strengthening of consumer protections. But replace isn’t an easy escape hatch, because there just isn’t any policy space for a replacement that would accomplish what Obamacare does – and the base won’t allow Republicans to embrace the tradeoffs necessary to realize the law’s goals in any case. The answer is to say you’re for a replacement that would do all the good stuff in the law without all the #Obummercare tyranny. As Brian Beutler puts it:

Republicans have replaced an unabashed “full repeal!” mantra with a deluge of weasel words meant to conceal the fact that “repeal” is still the beginning and end of their health-care reform agenda. It’s still the goal — they’re just a little ashamed of it now.

Rep. Ross asserts his replacement is the genuine article, and that the problem is simply that Republicans haven’t voted on it. Putting that aside, though, he’s also implicitly conceding that Republicans allowed themselves to be seduced into making a serious miscalculation. Republicans spent years saying No to Obamacare — a strategy based on seeming certainty that all Republicans had to do was wait until the law collapsed, as it inevitably would – and now they have been caught flat-footed with nothing to offer of their own.

Kaiser’s tracking polls on health care — the gold standard — neatly demonstrate that Americans don’t believe there is any Republican alternative. Its March poll found that only 29 percent of Americans want to repeal Obamacare, but in that category, only 11 percent of Americans want to repeal the law and replace it with an unspecified GOP alternative. In February some 12 percent were in that latter category. In October it stood at 13 percent. And so on.

The GOP “repeal and replace” strategy relies on keeping replace vague. It relies on a gamble that voters won’t notice that the actual choice Republicans are offering them is to stick with Obamacare or to return to the old system. The map is so bad for Dems that Republicans could win the Senate in spite of the problems with this strategy. But even so, there is a basic nuance in public opinion that continues to go underappreciated. The most likely explanation for the combination of continued disapproval of Obamacare and continued opposition to repeal is that many Americans may not like what the law requires in exchange for its good stuff – or beyond that perhaps they don’t like the health system and are skeptical it can be made better — yet they understand that Obamacare is the only set of solutions we’re going to get.

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