The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No, Democrats are not turning against the Affordable Care Act

The press hype about Affordable Care Act troubles shows no sign of letting up today; Politico and National Journal both have features that seem absolutely detached from political reality.

National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar has Democrats practically lining up to vote for repeal if isn’t working well in a couple of weeks:

Unless the website miraculously gets fixed by next month, there’s a growing likelihood that over time, enough Democrats may join Republicans to decide to start over and scrap the whole complex health care enterprise…
More than anything, politics is about self-preservation, and the last two weeks provided numerous examples of how public opinion has turned so hard against the law that even its most ardent supporters are running for the hills. It’s not just red-state Democrats, like Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, distancing themselves from the law. It’s blue-state senators like Oregon’s Jeff Merkley and New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen — and top blue-state recruits like Michigan’s Gary Peters and Iowa’s Bruce Braley, who voted for GOP legislation Friday that the White House said would “gut” the law. Nearly every House Democrat in a competitive district joined with Republicans to threaten the law. Without a quick fix, those ranks will grow.

The problem with Kraushaar’s fantasy — and it is a pure fantasy, one which winds up with an imagined vote count on a repeal veto override — is that no actual Democrats in Congress can be found who are even hinting at anything resembling such a dramatic reversal.

None. There are a handful of House Democrats who have always opposed the law, but beyond them, nada. Zip. Zilch.

Oh, there are plenty of Democrats who want to be on record as opposing the costs of Obamacare while still supporting the benefits. Especially when it’s a safe vote on something that has no chance to become law. That’s the real story behind the 39 House Democrats who voted for GOP Rep. Fred Upton’s “fix” to the law last week.

Sure, these Dems have “distanced themselves” from the law. But what does that really mean? The jump from getting upset at the costs to actually wanting to eliminate the benefits is an enormous one, and Democrats — including Democrats in marginal districts — simply aren’t making it.

Indeed, the Democratic defections here should be understood not as a prelude to turning against the law, but standard political position-taking on a free vote. As I’ve said, the Dem vote for Upton was very similar to Democratic defections on the House GOP minibills during the shutdown. Many Democrats weren’t willing to take a stand against popular Republican talking points in a meaningless vote, but they had no intention of defecting when their votes counted on the larger dispute in question.

The number of Dem defections, as Greg noted on Friday, is also similar to previous Democratic defections on less consequential Obamacare votes, such as the delay of the employer mandate.

Here’s what we can say about Democrats’ behavior ever since the law passed. They’ve been willing (and perhaps even eager) to distance themselves from whatever Republicans or the press were highlighting about the downside of reform at any given moment, as long as this distancing did not risk the core of the law, either because marginal issues can be fixed without undermining it, or because they were casting free votes for something that would never, ever become law. When something really did threaten reform (such as in all the repeal votes), they suddenly returned to the votes they cast back in 2009 and 2010.

Is it possible that Democrats could, if they reach a high enough level of panic, eventually support out and out repeal? No, they won’t.

Sure, it’s possible a handful of conservative Dems who have always opposed Obamacare will underline support for repeal, and the press corps will get very excited if that happens.

But for the vast bulk of mainstream Democrats, this is a decision that has already been made; they aren’t going to reverse it; and any current positioning doesn’t indicate otherwise. For one thing, as Brian Beutler explains today, as a purely electoral matter they really don’t have any choice here: Abandoning the ACA is practically an invitation to vote Republican. The politics call for exactly what they’ve done — vote with Republicans on meaningless messaging votes to deflect the tough talking points, but hang with the core of the law. And that’s exactly what they’ve been doing.

That just isn’t going to change. Interpreting the vote last week as a prelude to repeal is the wrong interpretation of what’s happening. The correct interpretation is that Dems want to have it both ways — they are simply decrying the costs of Obamacare while standing behind its benefits. There is no indication whatsoever that they will suddenly lurch from their current stance to a completely different position.

All of this will still apply even if isn’t working very well next month Indeed, it will probably be true even if isn’t working well in the entire first year of the program. Yes, that would cause some political stress (although whether it would have a real electoral effect is impossible to know), but not nearly as much as an attempt to abandon the exchanges at this point. The reality is that the electoral incentives for Dems work heavily against them abandoning the law.

It is still possible that the exchanges will collapse — that in the long run, when fully implemented, the policy really won’t work. But even then, repeal almost certainly won’t happen; instead there will be major changes that build on the law.

Either way, what’s not going to happen is repeal thanks to Democratic panic from short term media frenzies. That’s not how politics works, it’s not what’s happening now, and it’s not what’s going to happen in the future.