February 10, 2011

President Obama has laid a trap for Republicans on health care. Will the GOP walk right into it?

Obama made what appeared to be a stunning admission in his State of the Union address, when he acknowledged that his sainted health-care law needs a little work. “Let me be the first to say that anything can be improved. If you have ideas about how to improve this law by making care better or more affordable, I am eager to work with you,” he told lawmakers. Obama then offered up a provision he said Congress should immediately repeal, declaring “We can start right now by correcting a flaw in the legislation that has placed an unnecessary bookkeeping burden on small businesses.” And he concluded with an appeal for bipartisan cooperation: “Instead of re-fighting the battles of the last two years, let’s fix what needs fixing and let’s move forward.”

It was a brilliant political maneuver. The president knows that his health-care law remains unpopular and that it was a driving force behind the historic losses Democrats suffered in the 2010 elections. So to protect vulnerable Democrats in 2012 (including himself), and blunt the GOP’s push toward full repeal, the president is seeking to enlist the Republicans in helping him “fix” the flaws in Obamacare.

Senate Republicans have seized on his offer. Last week, they helped Democrats pass legislation repealing the provision Obama mentioned — a mandate that businesses file “1099” reports to IRS for all transactions of more than $600 in a given year. This provision had small businesses across the country up at in arms. But instead of harnessing that anger to push for full repeal, Republicans instead helped Democrats lift this source of pressure from the business community.

Expect Democrats to replicate this approach in the months ahead, supporting other fixes that tinker around the edges of Obamacare. Each individual proposal will seem entirely reasonable and an opportunity for bipartisan cooperation. But if Republicans go along, before they know it they will find that they have been drawn into a strategy of “fix and save” instead of “repeal and replace.”

Republicans need to understand that there is no path to repealing Obamacare “plank by plank.” Here is why: First, while Democrats will agree to peripheral changes, they will never allow the GOP to repeal the core provisions that make Obamacare such a monstrosity — such as the individual mandate, insurance mandates, and employer mandates. All Republicans will end up doing is helping Democrats sweeten the hemlock, thus undermining their case for full repeal.

Second, Republicans will hand the Democrats a huge public relations victory. As more “fixes” like the 1099 repeal are adopted, the president and Democratic leaders will portray themselves as the reasonable ones who have acknowledged flaws in their law, and are working to address them in bipartisan manner. Meanwhile, Republicans who continue to push for full repeal will be portrayed as strident hard-liners who care more about delivering a political blow to the president than helping Americans get better health care.

Third, Republicans will inadvertently help vulnerable Democrats get reelected. Sixteen Senate Democrats up for reelection this year voted for the 1099 repeal — and endangered Democratic incumbents are almost certain to support other similar measures in the period ahead. This will allow them to claim on the campaign trail that they are working to “repeal” the worst parts of Obamacare while keeping the parts of the law that Americans support.

Herein lies the true genius of Obama’s strategy. There is almost no individual provision of Obamacare that most Republicans would vote against repealing. So all the president and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have to do is pick the least objectionable Republican repeal bills, tweak them slightly, and have endangered Democrats introduce them as their own — and watch each one pass with overwhelming GOP support. That is precisely what Democrats did with the 1099 repeal. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), a vulnerable incumbent, stole legislation sponsored by Republican Mike Johanns and changed a few words, which helped the measure pass it with 81 votes on the Senate floor. Stabenow can now claim that she led a bipartisan effort that protected small businesses in her state from an odious provision of Obamacare.

Democrats will do this again and again in the months ahead. With each vote, they will strengthen their chances of holding onto the Senate in 2012, and set back the GOP’s hopes for full repeal in 2013. The president’s strategy is clear: Save the Democrat-controlled Senate. Save his reelection prospects. Save Obamacare. The only question is: Will Republicans help him do it?

Marc A. Thiessen, a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of the book “Courting Disaster” and writes a weekly column for The Post.