Democrats have an emerging strategy to defend the Affordable Care Act from Republican assault, daring their opponents to defy the “Pottery Barn rule”: They’re about to break the health-care system, and that means they will own it.
For more than six years, Republicans have attacked unpopular parts of the law without having to propose alternatives. Those days are over.
Emerging from their final huddle with President Obama, congressional Democrats said their plan is essentially to leave it to the GOP to replace Obamacare. And they’re getting an unintended assist from Republicans, who to date have no full plan, only a vague timeline and very few details on how they intend to do it.
“They’re going to own it and all the problems in the health-care system,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at a news conference after a 90-minute meeting with the president in the Capitol basement on Wednesday. Republicans will discover quickly, Schumer said, that implementing their preferred market-based alternatives will be virtually impossible without a large source of revenue, which would probably require Democratic votes for approval.
“Now they’re responsible for the entire health-care system, and it will be on their backs,” he said. “And I believe, a year from now, they will regret that they came out so fast out of the box.”
It is a modified version of how Republicans treated Obama and congressional Democrats in 2009 as they began the early steps of crafting the ACA. After prolonged talks with three Senate Republicans, Democrats moved ahead late in the year to pass the legislation on party-line votes.
As a result, Democrats politically owned every mishap, including the system’s often-crashing website during the rollout and the decision by insurance companies to abandon some exchanges that ran Obamacare in the states.
Republicans have hammered away at Obamacare ever since and made the legislation very unpopular in conservative-leaning states, driving some Democrats out of office in those regions for supporting the law.
Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) are adamant that they will not go as far as Republicans did back then in opposing just about every early Obama initiative. They still talk about Trump’s position on a large infrastructure bill as a starting point for a bipartisan initiative, and the president-elect and Schumer have similar views on trade and alleged currency manipulation by China.
Still, it is becoming obvious that Democratic leaders intend to give little early assistance to Trump or other Republicans as they try to undo much of the Obama legacy.
Republicans know the Pottery Barn rule well; Colin Powell invoked it when he was secretary of state to warn then-President George W. Bush that he would own a toppled Iraqi government precipitated by a U.S. invasion. They are very aware of the trap Schumer is trying to set and are working to portray Democrats as cheering for failure.
“I understand his political argument. He’s praying and hoping for failure, which means he’s praying and hoping for more pain on the part of the American people,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), the No. 2 GOP leader, said Wednesday. “I would hope they would get past that and would agree to work with us, because a long-term, sustainable replacement for Obamacare is going to need to be done on a bipartisan, consensus-building basis.”
This early Democratic strategy is the easy lift — do nothing. Democrats privately acknowledge, however, that the party needs to craft a broader agenda than they have relied on for the past four years, which resulted in terrible electoral defeats in 2014 and 2016.
That positive agenda is a work in progress, aides say, and will come in the weeks and months ahead.
Public opinion of the overall law is split evenly between those who support it and those who don’t. But it includes several very popular provisions, particularly one allowing adult children to stay on their parents’ insurance plans up to age 26, and another forbidding insurance companies from denying coverage to consumers with pre-existing health conditions.
With Republicans advancing a repeal, Democrats plan to blame them for trying to end those popular pieces of the ACA.
Republicans have tried to assure the public that the popular provisions will eventually become part of a replacement law. Cornyn described the adult childhood insurance issue and the pre-existing condition ban as “noncontroversial provisions, which I would suspect would be sustained.”
They are also promising that the new law will not throw the health system into chaos.
“The status quo will be maintained until there’s a replacement. So if people have what they have now, they’ll keep that until there’s a replacement,” Cornyn said.
Yet Republicans have not said publicly how long the transition period will be to replace the ACA. Nor have they explained how they would fund those expensive provisions without other portions of the existing law.
It is possible that, after several years of terribly explaining the health law to voters, Democrats are finally in position to make it a political success.
“It’s one thing to say to people this is what we can get,” Pelosi said. “It’s another thing to say this is what will be taken away from you. And that is a different case, and that is a case that we will make.”