December 6, 2013
The US flag flies at half staff over the White House in honor of former South African President Nelson Mandela in Washington, DC, on December 6, 2013. Mandela diead on December 5 at the age of 95. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEBSAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
(Saul Loeb/Getty Images)

Philip Klein is exasperated from President Obama’s somewhat aggressive use of administrative flexibility in implementing the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and argues that a “future Republican president would have greater latitude to gut Obamacare than I once thought possible.”

I think Klein exaggerates the extent to which the Obama administration is doing anything unusual; both law and custom give executive branch departments and agencies quite a bit of leeway in carrying out laws. But regardless, I agree that a Republican president would be able to “gut” Obamacare.

I just don’t believe it’s very likely to happen.

Take, for example, Klein’s suggestion that a Republican president could simply stop enforcing the individual mandate — or could stop offering subsidies for middle-class insurance consumers. Yes, it’s possible that it could happen. Would it? No way! Take the latter: there are surely going to be a large number of people who support that Republican president but that also receive ACA insurance subsidies. Would they somehow manage to blame the Democrats if President Rubio or Cruz eliminated them? Even hardcore Rush Limbaugh listeners might manage to connect the dots correctly to the Oval Office on that one, and virtually every swing voter would certainly do so. What about the individual mandate, then? Removing it might cause a death spiral, with premiums spiking up. Even if President Christie could avoid taking direct blame for that, the fact is that when things go wrong, the president winds up suffering.

To put it another way: administrative flexibility is regularly used to make implementing laws go more smoothly, and can be used to attempt to block things that an administration doesn’t like. It’s rarely used to simply sabotage existing policy, at least not major policies, because destroying major institutions is rarely very popular. And even in the unlikely event that President Walker or President Kasich even has some alternative to the ACA in mind, administrative discretion isn’t going to allow him to implement it (just as Obama couldn’t just decide on his own to have a public option, let alone a single-payer system).

It is true that a Republican president could probably eliminate some portions of the ACA without crashing the system, and that might happen. It’s certainly true that there may be areas where a Republican president would (correctly or not) believe that the system will work better by granting additional waivers or some such method. But what’s going to end, if there’s a Republican in the White House, is the kind of sabotage that Republicans have been using against Obamacare over the last three years. Because if it continues, they are the ones who are going to be damaged by it.