Why Obamacare repeal is faltering, bigly: A progress report

In the immediate aftermath of the presidential election, the swift repeal of Obamacare looked like a foregone conclusion. But three months later, the law’s demise is much less certain. Repeal is now on the ropes, with Republicans coming up empty handed on a replacement plan, and Donald Trump himself admitting that repeal might not happen until 2018.

Why is repeal faltering so badly? After the election, I suggested that Democrats could draw inspiration from President George W. Bush’s failed attempt to privatize Social Security in 2005 in order to save Obamacare today. They needed to stick together in opposition to repeal, galvanize outside resistance, and let the Republicans’ plans blow up.

Democrats are succeeding on all three fronts. If they continue, they just might succeed in beating back repeal efforts and saving Obamacare yet again. And if they do that, it might just sink Trump’s domestic agenda, like the failure of Social Security reform sank Bush’s. So consider this an early progress report on The Resistance.

Democrats have uniformly opposed GOP repeal efforts. Every Senate Democrat voted against the budget resolution meant to set the repeal process in motion. Democrats take the position that sensible bipartisan fixes are impossible unless the GOP takes repeal off the table. “We can’t repair the roof while Republicans and the president are burning the house down,” said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington.

The chaotic beginning of the Trump administration has done the repeal cause no favors. Vulnerable Democratic senators in red states may have strayed from the party and worked with Republicans on repeal. But Trump’s aggressive executive orders and divisive Cabinet picks have helped unify Democrats as a cohesive opposition on the back of an energized popular resistance to the administration.

Which gets to the second reason repeal is floundering: it is deeply unpopular. Only 33 percent of Americans favor repealing the law entirely. As Republicans force repeal on the public, the law only grows more popular, with more people now supporting Obamacare than oppose it.

Obamacare won’t go quietly, either. Those agonized by repeal are organizing in growing numbers and sophistication to make their voices heard by Congress. Grassroots activists are borrowing Tea Party tactics to demand answers from their representatives before they gut a law that’s providing insurance to 20 million people. They are sharing spreadsheets tracking their representatives’ town halls. When Obamacare supporters show up, Republican members of Congress without answers have taken to slipping out through backdoors and behind police escorts.

All of this has left Republicans feeling the heat, scrambling for a strategic and substantive plan to repeal Obamacare. Congressional leaders were originally planning to quickly pass a repeal bill and delay the effects for several years, during which they’d ostensibly come up with a replacement plan. As the dire effects on insurance markets of so-called “repeal and delay” became clear, Republicans backed off, and Trump undercut the plan completely by insisting that repeal and replace happen “essentially simultaneously.”

As the repeal charge fumbled, Republicans changed their tune about their core mission. “It is more accurate to say ‘repair Obamacare,’” Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said this month, backtracking from all-out repeal. “We can repair the individual market, and that is a good place to start.” That’s a far cry from repealing the law “lock, stock and barrel,” as Vice President Mike Pence promised in December.

Even more telling is what Republicans say in private. In a closed-door meeting last month, Republican members of Congress expressed deep concerns about the party’s lack of clarity on healthcare. Members worried about the GOP “owning” the fallout of a rushed repeal. Others looked to their leadership for details on what the replacement will look like. So far, the GOP has none.

As the GOP realized that Obamacare repeal would be harder than they thought, the party has steadily walked back expectations about when repeal will happen. Five days into the Trump presidency, Speaker Ryan revised the GOP’s aborted day-one goal and promised Obamacare repeal would be accomplished by April. Now, Ryan assures only that repeal will get donesometime “this year.” Trump himself seems downright eager to postpone repeal until 2018, believing he can get a better deal out of Democrats then.

Even as the party buys itself more time, the GOP is still spinning its wheels trying to come up with a plausible alternative to Obamacare. Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee admitted that work on a replacement bill hasn’t even begun yet. “To be honest, there’s not any real discussion taking place right now,” he said. Sen. John Thune of South Dakota — the number three Republican in the Senate — has essentially pinned his hopes on Trump producing his own plan that “we’ll be able to work together with him on[.]”

Sensing the momentum of repeal slipping away, the Tea Party contingency in Congress is trying to reorient the GOP back around immediate repeal. They are right to worry. The longer repeal drags on, the more vulnerable it is to succumbing to external intervening events. After all, just eight months into President Bush’s second term, the push to reform Social Security was ultimately felled by the administration’s inept response to Hurricane Katrina.

As Trump burns his political capital tormenting refugees, Obamacare repeal could fall by the wayside. Given that Trump’s presidency already appears to be one that will hop from scandal to crisis and from mismanagement to debacle, his thin reservoir of public goodwill could quickly evaporate before congressional Republicans divine their mythical Obamacare replacement plan.

If that happens, Obamacare repeal will go the way of Social Security privatization as another conservative social welfare overhaul that crumbled under its own weight. Democrats are sitting back and letting directionless Republicans wither on the vine in the face of mass protest and rising discontent. The fight is far from over, but for those who want to see Obamacare stick around, the message is simple: Keep it up.


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