How Obamacare opponents should respond to Obama’s failed victory lap

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According to Aaron Blake at the Washington Postthe administration’s Obamacare victory lap looks more like a false start.

Democrats have been claiming a turning point in the battle over Obamacare for the better part of the last month. … President Obama even took something of a victory lap, declaring the debate over his signature health-care law over. When it comes to the American people, though, there has been basically zero rallying effect. And in fact, they still expect Obamacare to do significantly more harm than good – in about the same proportions as before.

As we have noted, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows approval of the law and of Obama’s implementation of it have dropped after a momentary boost. Americans disapprove of the law overall 48–44 and disapprove of Obama’s implementation 57–37. What’s perhaps more telling is that, despite the rare good news of the past few weeks, their perceptions of the law remain basically as-is – that is, pretty dim. To wit: Americans say 50–41 that the implementation of the law has been worse than they expected rather than better. They say 44–24 that the health-care system is getting worse rather than getting better as a result of Obamacare. They say 29–14 that the quality of care is getting worse rather than better. They say 47–8 that their health-care costs are increasing due to the law rather than decreasing. They say 58–11 that the overall cost of health care in the United States is increasing rather than decreasing.

Almost all of these numbers are basically unchanged from in recent months. The one exception would be a slight uptick in the percentage of people who say the law is making things better (from 19 percent in December to 24 percent today). But even with that, the law’s long-term prognosis – (ahem) so to speak – hasn’t changed, with Americans still seeing it as more expensive than it needs to be for both themselves and the country. And nearly twice as many still say the law is making things worse rather than making things better.

The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll this week replicates those findings. In this context, how should opponents of Obamacare think about talking about the law? We saw an example of how not to approach the challenge when the Spokesman-Review published a story this weekend with a headline claiming House Republican leader Cathy McMorris-Rodgers says Obamacare is likely to stay. McMorris-Rodgers’ office blasted the depiction of her comments that way – you’ll note the only actual quote in the story is “we need to look at reforming the exchanges,” which isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing to say, but doesn’t justify the headline. But even if the piece is inaccurate, it provides us with a handy object lesson about how not to talk about Obamacare.

What McMorris-Rodgers, or any Republican, is really saying when she says Obamacare is unlikely to be repealed: She’s saying Republicans are unlikely to beat Hillary Clinton in 2016. Why? Well, every single Republican presidential candidate in 2016 will be in favor of repealing Obamacare. Every single one will have a proposal, from the bullet point to the massive white paper, for replacing Obamacare. Every single one will be insistent in response to the skepticism of their debate questioners that the law will be rolled back under their watch by any means necessary. And should one of them win, Obamacare’s rollback will be the first legislative item on the agenda. Even if Democrats retain control of the Senate, Republicans will attempt to dismantle the law.

The only realistic way this is not the case, of course, is if 1) Hillary Clinton becomes the next president of the United States. (That’s it – that’s the list.)

Now, it may be that it is also McMorris-Rodgers’ opinion that this is likely to come to pass – she’s certainly not alone in that opinion! – in which case she might as well say that, too.

Of course repeal of Obamacare will be challenging. There are a host of things in the Democratic and Republican agendas that are unlikely to come to pass. For McMorris-Rodgers’ party, it is also unlikely that the tax code will ever be dramatically reformed; that Paul Ryan’s Medicare reform will ever pass; that Social Security will be privatized; or that the balanced budget amendment to the Constitution will ever pass. Yet all these things are in their platform. Should they be removed because making them happen is difficult, politically?

Politicians who run on repealing Obamacare who say they don’t anticipate being able to repeal Obamacare are essentially saying “we expect to lose,” which seems a pretty silly thing for an elected politician to be saying. You don’t get a lot of “we expect to lose” from underdog sports teams headed into a big game, even if they do. If you expect to lose, then you might as well throw in the towel and skip the game – or, in this case, stop working on public policy or electoral politics. You should particularly stop working on Republican alternatives to Obamacare, as it is a waste of time given the inevitable future election of Hillary Clinton and a Democratic Senate.

I realize some people are of a different mind on this topic – here, Avik Roy makes the case that Republicans should be making the case for reforming, not repealing, Obamacare. But I disagree. It’s clear at this point that Obamacare has consistently been the most reviled federal domestic policy in ages among voters; that a not-insignificant number of those enrolled in it are doing so not gladly, but because they have been forced against their will to be dependent on it; and that we have no idea what Obamacare will do to the marketplace – and people’s lives – over the coming years. If the trendlines continue on price and access and disruption, Obamacare’s negatives will continue to outweigh its positives, and the political feasibility of undoing it really depends only on the outcome of the 2016 election.

If you think losing to Hillary Clinton is inevitable, of course, it’s a moot point. But then, if you think after eight years of Barack Obama the country isn’t capable of putting an Obamacare opponent in the White House, proposing any politically challenging free market policy changes would be a moot point, too.