At the House Budget Committee hearing on Wednesday, Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) had this to say during his opening remarks: “By 2017, CBO [the Congressional Budget Office] projects people will be working fewer hours—precisely because of the incentives created by this law. The effect will be severe—precisely as if 2.5 million people had stopped working full time by 2024. Between 2017 and 2024, overall labor compensation will also decline. And these changes will disproportionately affect lower-wage workers. Translation: Washington is making the poverty trap that much worse.”
In a nutshell, this is the newest and perhaps most effective argument Republicans have come up with to attack Obamacare — and the Democrats who passed it. It does a number of things for the anti-Obamacare forces.
Taking as step back for a moment, Americans — despite the far right’s continual predictions of catastrophe — are very much wedded to work. They overwhelmingly supported welfare reform in the 1990s, which added to the workforce. And when the president’s administration tried to fiddle with the welfare law’s work requirement it had to beat a hasty retreat. This shouldn’t be surprising. As the American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks has been explaining for some time, the idea of earning one’s success through productive effort is near and dear to Americans:
The link between earned success and life satisfaction is well established by researchers. The University of Chicago’s General Social Survey, for example, reveals that people who say they feel “very successful” or “completely successful” in their work lives are twice as likely to say they are very happy than people who feel “somewhat successful.” It doesn’t matter if they earn more or less income; the differences persist.
The opposite of earned success is “learned helplessness,” a term coined by Martin Seligman, the eminent psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. It refers to what happens if rewards and punishments are not tied to merit: People simply give up and stop trying to succeed.
In other words, Republicans find themselves on the side of an issue that defies partisan boundaries and is overwhelmingly popular with most voters. Conversely, Democrats are in the unenviable position of defending the “choice” not to work on other people’s dime.
The CBO-induced issue goes further than this, however. It also gives a real-world example for conservative reformers who have been talking about work and family as pathways out of poverty and arguing that government often acts to block those avenues. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), in his response to the State of the Union, said:
[T]he President’s lofty rhetoric ignored the fact that his administration continues to leave poor and middle-class families further behind, while he and his allies insist that the real problem is “inequality” itself. But where does this new inequality come from? From government – every time it takes rights and opportunities away from the American people and gives them instead to politicians, bureaucrats, and special interests.
Inequality – real inequality – is trapping poor children in failing schools to benefit bureaucrats and union bosses. It’s penalizing low-income parents for getting married, or getting better jobs. It’s guaranteeing insurance companies taxpayer bailouts if Obamacare cuts into their profits. Inequality is blocking thousands of middle-class jobs in the energy industry as a favor to partisan donors and radical environmental activists. . . . And of course, Obamacare – all by itself – is an inequality Godzilla that has robbed working families of their insurance, their doctors, their wages and their jobs. Many Americans are now seeing why some of us fought so hard to stop this train-wreck over the last four years.
The CBO report puts some concrete numbers behind that argument and points to actual people who are in essence lured out of the workforce by an ill-constructed and unwieldy program.
And finally, Republicans in making this case, unlike the case against a minimum wage hike or continued unemployment insurance benefits, are arguing for the working poor not against things. That, as many conservative thinkers including Brooks have argued, has been missing from the conservative message. And that in turn has been the root of much of what ails the GOP. Always against abstract things (e.g. government, taxes, regulations) and never for the most vulnerable. Now that equation is reversed as Republicans can point to the people who are beckoned out of the workforce where they were once full participants. Those may be the people who stand to gain the most by staying employed full-time, getting a better job and then a better one after that. In sum, Obamacare is replacing earned success with learned helplessness and thereby working against its own goals of lessening inequality and poverty.
In sum, the CBO report findings tap into Americans’ nonpartisan affection for work, put meat on the bones of existing policy arguments and provide an argument for poor and middle class people. It is also new — that is, a new argument and set of data that elected officials, candidates, think tankers and, yes, campaign strategists can work with to keep Obamacare front and center. For Republicans worried that Obamacare will simply be the new normal, the CBO report energizes their forces and gives new momentum to the delay/repeal and replace effort.
There is a caution here for Republicans, however. Their ability to wage this and other effective attacks on Obamacare depends upon their ability to offer a plausible and better alternative. Otherwise the Democrats will simply say that they are attempting to address a real concern while the Republicans are offering nothing to Obamacare victims. It is not enough to simply take away Obamacare and its ill effects; in order to win the debate and the votes, Republicans need to show their support for vulnerable people is not simply rhetorical.
This is, therefore, the great debate the right has been pining for: Should government be giving stuff to people or fostering earned success? If they can’t come up with policies based on those alternatives and win that debate, they might as well close up shop.