Over the past week, President Trump has called Obamacare a “catastrophe,” a “disaster,” an “absolute disaster” and “terrible.” He has said that its costs place too much burden on millions of Americans and that it needs to go.
And he has now settled upon a response to this urgent problem that is destroying America: Wait two years, and then try to do something.
Trump’s decision to lean in on health care in recent days has been met with a stiff-arm from congressional Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) cautioned Trump against his Justice Department’s new effort to have the entire law struck down, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) served notice this week that the Senate will not be taking up health-care legislation. GOP leaders have gotten Trump to back off, at least on the latter count. The stated plan now is to do something after the 2020 election; we’ll see whether it actually happens.
It is worth taking stock of this moment. What we are seeing here is the marking of a willful GOP capitulation to Obamacare. Republicans are essentially admitting it is here to stay, barring unforeseen changes. They are trying to dress it up and put a good face on it for Trump, given that he apparently is not willing to concede the point. But it appears their long-emphasized push to get rid of this allegedly destructive law is effectively over.
That law’s political staying power became pretty clear last Congress, when Republicans gradually abandoned their past support for flat-out repeal and decided they could not get rid of the law without replacing it. And then they failed to do that, even though they had control of both chambers of Congress. Trump will blame the late senator John McCain for that, but the GOP bill polled atrociously. (Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that McCain may have saved his party from a real albatross.)
There was little doubt this was probably their last, best chance to get rid of the law, and it came up short.
The difference now is they are not really pretending this is their priority anymore, and Trump’s aborted decision to raise this issue again has laid that bare. As David M. Drucker notes, rather than emphasizing repealing and replacing the law as they have for years, Republicans who are set to face voters are instead emphasizing working within the existing system on some changes. And that goes even for red-staters such as Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), for whom running on repeal used to be a no-brainer.
In many ways, it is an acceptance of reality. Calling for repeal was an effective tool for Republicans when Barack Obama was in office, and it was purely theoretical. But Trump’s election and the newfound reality of a replacement that involved so many unknowns and potential repercussions suddenly made people decide the bird in hand was good enough.
As any political scientist will tell you, the more an entitlement program (which Obamacare is, to some degree) becomes enmeshed in society, the harder it is to take it away — which also points to the GOP’s decision to punt on this being something of a bookend for this debate. It is not really possible for Republicans to deal with this issue today, since Democrats now control the House, sure. But allowing Obamacare’s roots to grow for two more years is unlikely to shift public opinion in their favor. Absent a shift in American health care that would be widely understood as a true “catastrophe,” there will probably be even less momentum behind supplanting Obamacare come 2021.
Republicans seem to know that, even if Trump does not. So they have bought themselves some time on an issue they have recognized is not really a winner for them anymore, and they are hoping Trump’s gusto will subside. In the meantime, though, he will have to explain why he is not doing something about this veritable plague on everyday Americans’ lives.