How “Buzzword Politics” killed the GOP health care bill

“Repeal Obamacare!”

Republicans spent seven years building political power with that phrase as its foundation. Last Friday, they found that foundation wanting as their own health care plan collapsed amid intra-party finger-pointing.

The GOP enjoyed big gains in three of the past four elections cycles — they took control of the House of Representatives in 2010, the Senate in 2014, and the White House in 2016, promising at each turn to take the Affordable Care Act (ACA) off the books. It was an effective message point. Polls showed Americans didn’t like the law, especially as they watched their preferred health plans evaporate and their premiums climb. For Republicans giddy over a Presidential win for the first time since 2004, maybe this string of election victories looked like a popular mandate.

But in embracing a simple message point, Republicans surrendered their message.

The Republicans wondering how they could have lost this battle after seven years of bashing Obamacare sound an awful lot like Democrats who wonder how Hillary Clinton could have lost after seven weeks of bashing Donald Trump.

The answer, in both cases, goes back to a lack of substance behind the attacks. In her blistering criticisms of Trump’s fitness for office, Clinton failed to present a positive case for her own candidacy. Just as Clinton allowed Trump to dictate the terms of the campaign, Republicans are framing health policy debates in terms of the ACA.

Compare this to President Barack Obama’s push for health care reform in 2009 and 2010. His vision was clear: the federal government would expand its role in the health care industry with subsidies for coverage and regulations on health insurance companies. It wouldn’t be the single-payer system many on the left hoped for, but it would expand coverage (at least on paper). In fact, a single-payer advocate could reasonably support the plan as the best progress toward a future single-payer system the political environment would allow.

So far in 2017, Republicans have presented no such vision.

And without such a vision, it’s no wonder why public opinion cratered on the GOP-authored American Health Care Act (AHCA) — nor why many conservatives easily walked away from a plan deemed “Obamacare Lite” by Senator Rand Paul and others.

There runs a common thread between the GOP’s health care stumbles and another, less prominent story that has developed over the past two weeks. Tomi Lahren lost her gig on Glenn Beck’s Blaze network after divulging her pro-choice leanings during a March 17 appearance on The View. At just 24, Lahren has already crafted a reputation for populist monologues on various hot-button issues. No doubt Lahren’s producers — and possibly Lahren herself — saw such rants as a way to attract a following quickly. Without a deeper understanding of the issues and audience, though, she became susceptible to less flattering viral appearances, such as her fateful chat on The View.

It would be easy to point and laugh at Lahren, but ostensibly more seasoned policy experts have succumbed to the same trap.

The phrase “Repeal Obamacare” has become a verbal crutch for many in the center-right — even for organizations who propose market-oriented reforms. To hear Republicans talk, one might get the impression that simply tallying enough votes to repeal the law is the GOP’s ultimate health policy goal. Before discussing any details of what health care might look like in an evolving economy, GOP voices resort to their attention-grabbing, provocative, and — ultimately — meaningless message point.

And it’s a message point which has begun to lose its edge.

At seven years old and counting, Obamacare is no longer just a passing fancy of an ambitious President. Insurance companies and health care providers have spent the better part of a decade adapting to the law. Obamacare is now the default, the baseline health care policy. “Repeal” means going backwards — which makes it hard to get voters and legislators on board.

If Republicans want to make any headway on health care policy, they must stop trying to fight 2010’s battles over again. Shallow buzzwords are not enough — even if those buzzwords poll well.