What Republicans don’t understand about the politics of Obamacare

September 24, 2013

The GOP's strategy right now is entirely aimed at getting Democrats to begin dismantling Obamacare.


Not Sen. Ted Cruz's base. (Mark Wilson / GETTY IMAGES)

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) hopes that by shutting down the government he can convince Democrats to defund it. Speaker John Boehner hopes that by threatening to breach the debt ceiling he can convince Democrats to delay it. If that fails, top Republicans quietly think they may be able to get Democrats to compromise on delaying the individual mandate.

Republicans do have a theory as to why Democrats will ultimately agree to some of this. Obamacare is unpopular. A lot of Democrats are up for reelection in 2014. In the end, they'll see a delay of the whole thing, or at least of the individual mandate, as a gift. The Obama administration may complain, but when vulnerable Senate Democrats begin voting with the Republicans, they'll quickly cave.

Senate Democrats find this logic baffling. "We're dumb," says an aide to a moderate Senate Democrat. "But we're not that dumb."

Congressional Democrats are realists on Obamacare. It's not popular now. They don't expect it to be popular by the 2014 election. But they know they own it.

"Our members are not going to become clean on Obamacare if they take one different vote now and they won’t become culpable on Obamacare if they take one different now.," says a senior aide to the Senate Democratic leadership. "I don’t see us having a Saul on the road to Damascus change of mind on health-care reform."

But it's the specifics of the GOP's pitch that really amuse Democrats. The argument they're making might make sense for repeal, but a one-year delay in Obamacare would just mean that implementation begins in October 2014 -- which is to say, one month before the 2014 election. That's supposed to help Democrats in the election?

Democrats point out that Obamacare's implementation schedule wasn't an accident. It was purposefully designed to begin in an off-year. That way there would be a year to work out the worst kinks, and by the time of the actual election, Democrats could point to millions of people getting insurance, running ad after ad highlighting constituents who now have coverage. If implementation didn't begin until October 2014, all voters would know about Obamacare would be the early glitches, as insurance coverage wouldn't begin until January 1, 2015.

In other words, the GOP is trying to sell Democrats on a political nightmare they specifically wrote the law to avoid -- and they're doing so on the grounds that it would actually be a political boon!

The individual mandate "compromise" is also looked on with some derision. Republicans assume that it will be attractive to Democrats because the policy is unpopular. But they haven't thought through the way the law works. "If you were to delay just the individual mandate, the premiums would jump much higher," says Rep. Chris Van Hollen. "That would sabotage the entire purpose of the exchange."

Democrats would be left trying to protect a law where premiums are skyrocketing and insurers are pulling out. They would've traded an unpopular policy that won't actually impose any penalties until 2015 for a complete disaster in 2014.

"They think Obamacare is in play," says the Democratic leadership aide. "We don’t. We just take it for granted we’re not going to fundamentally change Obamacare."

Moreover, Democrats see a real silver lining in the GOP's obstruction. The American people don't like Obamacare. But they dislike the Republican Party's kill-it-at-all-costs strategy even more.

According to a CNBC poll, the public opposes defunding Obamacare 44-38 percent. They oppose shutting down the government to defund Obamacare 59-19 percent. Republican brinksmanship takes defunding Obamacare from a slight political loser to an overwhelming political disaster.

Democrats know they own Obamacare. They can't get away from that. But they figure their chances in 2014 are substantially improved if Republicans own a shutdown -- or, worse, a default.

Democrats used to hope that Obamacare would help them in the 2014 election by being popular, but now they think it might help them by driving the GOP so crazy that the American people simply don't trust them to govern.

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Ezra Klein · September 24, 2013