If you’d asked me a few years ago to name the Republican Party’s top policy priorities, I would have said: 1) Obamacare repeal and 2) tax cuts.
Today, the GOP seems to believe that both are duds with voters. Worse than duds: huge liabilities, ripe for Democratic exploitation.
Virtually from the moment the Affordable Care Act passed, Republican lawmakers saw it as an inexhaustible, base-galvanizing gold mine. They voted to repeal the law dozens of times. Multiple right-wing lawsuits, including one led by then-House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), tried to cripple it. And then after President Trump entered office, Republicans pushed for repeal. When that failed, the White House undertook administrative sabotage, designed to destabilize individual markets and push poor people off Medicaid.
Meanwhile, views of the law dramatically improved.
Since Trump took office, the public has pretty consistently held more favorable than unfavorable views of Obamacare, according to surveys from the Kaiser Family Foundation and poll aggregates by RealClearPolitics. It’s the longest stretch where Obamacare’s approval ratings were above water since passage. In fact, it’s the only such stretch in the RealClearPolitics data.
So what happened?
In part, voters learned what Obamacare does. And when they did, they realized they’d been fans all along.
The Obamacare brand had long been unpopular, sure, but nearly all of the law’s actual functions — such as protections for those with preexisting conditions, Medicaid expansion, premium subsidies for lower-income Americans — have always been wildly popular. Most were popular among Democrats and Republicans alike.
Once voters put two and two together, Republicans had to backtrack on one of their signature issues.
At least 20 Republican House incumbents this year have changed their websites to either completely eliminate or water down their once-merciless denunciations of the Affordable Care Act, according to an analysis by the Daily Beast’s Gideon Resnick.
In 2016, the health-care section of Rep. Bruce Poliquin’s (R-Maine) website promised to “End Obamacare and Replace with Free Market Solution to Improve Health Care.” Now it makes no explicit mention of the law; instead, Poliquin promises, “As the son of a nurse, I will continue to work on improving access to affordable, quality health care in Maine.”
In TV ads, health care in general has been far and away the most frequently cited issue in federal races all year, according to an analysis from Wesleyan Media Project. But there has been a shift in recent months: From January 2017 through July 2018, about 10 percent of pro-Republican ads specifically mentioned the Affordable Care Act or health reform; in August, the share fell to 1 percent.
Even in state-level races, GOP candidates have been caught flat-footed. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) recently found himself awkwardly promising to rescue protections for those with preexisting conditions — even though those protections are at risk precisely because Walker joined a 20-state lawsuit asking the courts to strike them down.
Invent an illness so you can swoop in with the cure, I guess.
Meanwhile, Democrats, including in red states, are seizing on the public’s enthusiasm for health care generally and protections for those with preexisting conditions specifically.
Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va) recently reprised a 2010 special-election ad in which he shot a hole in a climate bill and pledged to “repeal the bad parts of Obamacare.” In the new ad, he instead aims his gun at that 20-state lawsuit threatening preexisting conditions protections.
There are parallels here with tax cuts, the GOP’s only major legislative achievement under Trump.
Tax cuts never inflamed quite the same passionate public responses (positive or negative) that Obamacare did — perhaps because tax rates matter more to donors than voters.
In fact, Americans’ top complaints about the federal tax system are that some corporations and the wealthy “don’t pay their fair share,” according to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey. Yet the GOP tax bill allowed these two groups to shirk more of the country’s tax burden — something voters correctly identified in a recently leaked internal Republican National Committee poll.
No wonder, then, that the bill has remained deeply underwater for almost the entire period since it was announced. So Republican campaign ads have pared back mention of the tax law over time, too. Congressional efforts for a Tax Cuts 2.0, which would cost another $2 trillion, have likewise slowed.
Pundits like me have sometimes criticized Democrats for not sufficiently explaining to voters what they stand for beyond “Trump is bad.” But this cycle, perhaps the more interesting question is: Absent tax cuts and Obamacare repeal, what do Republicans now stand for, beyond “Trump is good”?