Monday, December 2, 2013

Obamacare & Republican Identity

In a post about Obamacare two weeks ago, I concluded on a note of optimism that the website was improving and that, whatever happened in the Congressional elections in 2014, Obama had until 2017 to implement fixes to the ACA and make it a permanent fixture of the federal edifice. On Sunday, as they promised, the administration revealed the progress made on healthcare.gov fixes and the news was positive.

While it would be wise to be skeptical of this update coming from the White House, plenty of news outlets have confirmed that, relative to the website experience in October, the interface is much improved with far fewer error rates. Bloomberg reported that sign-ups in November numbered over 100,000. "Wonkblog" at the Washington Post wondered a week ago, "Is Obamacare Turning the Corner?" The answer, apparently, was yes, because one of today's "Wonkblog" headlines read, "Healthcare.gov will work. That means Obamacare can work too." Despite lingering and real concerns regarding the back end of the site's functionality, specifically the information delivered to insurance companies, the consumer experience for individual shoppers (i.e. voters) is working quite well. They conclude:
So there remain reason for concern. But here's what's indisputable: HealthCare.gov is improving, and fast. Or, to put it differently, HealthCare.gov will be fixed. In fact, for most people, it is probably fixed now, or will be fixed quite soon.

The repair job is likely proceeding quickly enough to protect Obamacare from the most severe threat to its launch: Democrat-backed legislation unwinding the individual mandate or other crucial portions of the law. So long as people can actually purchase insurance through the federal exchanges, congressional Democrats are likely to support the basic architecture of the legislation they passed in 2010.
Not out of the woods yet, not even close, still the Democratic establishment must be breathing a massive sigh of relief after the massive momentum swings in the last two months. Obama's summer doldrums gave way to the Republican shut down, an early Christmas gift from the Tea Party. That political advantage was squandered completely just a few days after Obamacare's disastrous launch, but now the pendulum, perhaps, has begun to swing back. Obamacare's enrollments may be sluggish and disappointing, but such scorekeeping ignores the more fundamental truth that with every new sign-up, the law becomes more indelible. This fact, reports Brien Beutler, poses a serious problem for a Republican Congress that has continually made hay passing laws to repeal Obamacare.
Now that it’s December, Republicans are facing accelerating enrollment across the country and a thinning calendar. Healthcare.gov is much improved and still improving, and the House is set to adjourn on December 13 for the remainder of the year. When it returns, the hundreds of thousands of people who’ve already successfully enrolled will actually be insured, and their ranks will be swelling.
In other words, you can't just repeal the law anymore... repeal laws will actually cause hundreds of thousands of people to lose their benefits. Joan Walsh, Beutler's colleague at Salon, offers another diagnosis of the past year in health care politics:
Still, it may turn out that the ACA troubles were a brilliant Democratic plot to distract Republicans from their demographic terminal illness, and convince them that the Kill Obamacare playbook is all they need for 2014.  Republicans have made absolutely zero progress in reaching out to any of the demographic groups – women, young people or Latinos – that the RNC’s autopsy agreed they had to, in order to stay alive as their older white base ages into that great Tea Party rally in the sky.
A brilliant Democratic plot? Wishful liberal thinking, to be sure, but the critique of the 2013 Republican political strategy (if we can even point to anything so coherent) strikes me as correct. If Obamacare survives and prospers, the Republican problem with the national electorate remains as real and as threatening to the long term prospects of the Party as everyone said it was after Mitt Romney lost last November. It might even be worse. As Walsh pointed out in a subsequent column, many of the people signing up for healthcare are older white people who are, in demographic terms, the Republican Party's Alamo. Granted, national demographics may not matter to the Congressional races next fall. Beutler argues as much:
In the months ahead the GOP will squeeze every drop of political juice they can out of every Obamacare failure and hardship they can unearth or spin into existence. But the goal won’t be repeal. It will be to channel the right’s Obamacare obsession into voter turnout in 2014 — at which point millions of people will be insured and the law will be unrepealable.

I think the hopelessness of the repeal campaign — the absence of a viable legislative vehicle, the turning tide of Healthcare.gov, the initiation of insurance benefits — is becoming clear to elected Republicans, and its dying embers will be fully extinguished by early next year.
If Beutler is right—a big if—it will leave the Republican Party in a peculiar place. So much of their identity has been constructed in the last four years as the Enemies of Obamacare, it is hard to imagine what platform they will build when that fight becomes moot. Ezra Klein wrote back in September that Republicans cannot even adopt deficit reduction, their old stand-by, as an urgent need to vote in Republicans. Deficit spending has cratered since 2008.

It is an open question, then, how the Republican Party will remake itself. Being a Republican in 2014 might yet entail open resentment against Obama, Obamacare, and government overreach. It is far less certain what being a Republican in 2016 will mean.

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