Indulging The Obamacare Repeal Fantasy

The problems facing the Affordable Care Act's implementation have given the law's critics no shortage of ammunition to take potshots at President Obama's signature legislative accomplishment. But to hear those critics tell it, the ACA's problems are an unfolding political catastrophe in which Democrats are poised to abandon ship and the law is just a hair's breadth from repeal. Repeal of the law is and always has been a fantasy, but right now it's being enabled by members of the mainstream press for whom the ACA's problems aren't serious enough and somehow merit embellishment.

Tea Party congressmen and conservative pundits have been keeping the repeal fantasy alive ever since the law was signed back in 2010. The backlash from the government shutdown, which was inspired by Tea Party efforts to gut the ACA, did nothing to dull enthusiasm for the “repeal Obamacare” crowd. “Obamacare will be repealed well in advance of the 2014 elections,” conservative wag Steven Hayward wrote in Forbes on November 11. “There is a chance Obamacare could be repealed in a bipartisan vote,” wrote Ed Rogers in the Washington Post. Congress “could try to vote now, under new conditions and with the American people behind them, to repeal the whole thing,” Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “And who knows, they just might.” No, they won't. And even if Congress did somehow manage to pass a bill repealing the ACA, it would in all certainty be vetoed by President Obama.

But this is what pundits and activists do: shape and spin stories to conform to their preferred outcome. The National Journal's Josh Kraushaar, rather than tamping down this irrational enthusiasm among the law's opponents, is giving it a leg up. “There's a growing likelihood that over time, enough Democrats may join Republicans to decide to start over and scrap the whole complex health care enterprise,” Kraushaar writes in his November 18 column. Now, this is caveated to the point that it's essentially meaningless -- he's saying there's an increased chance of something possibly happening over an indeterminate time period -- -- but Kraushaar nonetheless wants us to think that repeal is a real threat.

Basically it comes down to veto-proof majorities in both houses of Congress. “Consider: Despite the White House's protestations, 62.4 percent of the House voted for Michigan GOP Rep. Fred Upton's legislation (261-157), just shy of the two-thirds necessary to override a veto.” That's true enough, but Upton's bill was not for full repeal of the law. The votes for Upton's bill, which would permit health insurers to continue selling plans that don't meet the ACA's minimum standards, reflect Democratic dissatisfaction with the law, but the vote itself was essentially symbolic. The bill won't be taken up by the Senate, and it would never survive an Obama veto. Those Democrats went into the vote knowing that it wouldn't have any impact on policy. So you can't just extrapolate from that symbolic expression of frustration a desire to scrap the whole law.

Notably, Kraushaar didn't give any indication that he actually spoke to any House Democrats when speculating on their willingness to abandon the ACA. Salon's Brian Beutler did ask a House Democrat, Rep. Steven Cohen, that question on MSNBC over the weekend and Cohen dismissed the idea out of hand. “I can't see a veto proof number coming up. I just don't see that happening.”

On the Senate side, Kraushaar's argument is even weaker, given that Democrats control the chamber, so he can only offer up hypotheticals for arriving at a far-fetched political destination:

To overcome a veto, Republicans would need 22 of those 28 winnable votes. Right now, they wouldn't come close. But Reid and the White House may end up relying on swing-state Democrats like Claire McCaskill and Bob Casey to protect the law. If the political mood doesn't improve in short order, will they want to be in that position? And if Republicans retake the Senate in 2015, the political momentum for repeal would only grow.

That's a lot of ifs and questions left unanswered. But from all this Kraushaar arrived at the notion that repeal is visible on the horizon. Ironically, by sketching out the immense political shifts and alignments of the electoral stars that must occur in order to arrive at veto-proof majorities for ACA opponents, Kraushaar unwittingly demonstrated just how unlikely it is for the repeal fantasy to come true.

(Image via flickr via Creative Commons License)