WASHINGTON -- It's no secret that Republicans are finding Obamacare less useful as a political cudgel in the midterm elections than they'd hoped.
The health care law is mentioned less and less frequently in attack ads. Fewer Republican candidates are discussing it on the stump. And a consensus has taken hold that the GOP's biggest mistake this cycle was shutting down the government in an effort to repeal it.
But does that mean that the push for repeal is now a thing of the past?
Officially, no. Ask virtually any Republican elected official in Washington and they will say that ridding the country of Obamacare remains the ultimate objective. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has been shifty, to say the least, about what he’d like to see happen in his own state, an Obamacare success story, still frequently calls for repeal “root and branch."
In private, however, the conversations are much more tethered to political realities. In a discussion about the state of the midterm elections this past June during a retreat hosted by the Koch brothers, Marc Short, president of the Koch-backed non-profit group Freedom Partners, admitted the obvious (emphasis ours):
“If Republicans can control the House and the Senate, we would, in fact, (inaudible) one of the last opportunities (inaudible) at repealing Obamacare,” said Short, according to an audio recording of the event obtained by The Undercurrent, a progressive citizen journalism outlet, and shared exclusively with The Huffington Post. “I acknowledge the President will never sign legislation that repeals it, but it does provide the opportunity to begin to defund central elements of it and begin to peel it back.”
This is hardly earth-shattering stuff. During the low points of the government shutdown last fall, a number of Republicans made the same point: regardless of the conservative utopia being dreamed up in the halls of the Heritage Foundation, Obamacare will remain the law as long as Barack Obama is president.
And yet, Freedom Partners helped bankroll many of the groups that fought the Obamacare-related fights that led to the shutdown, and its website currently states that “Obamacare must be replaced by genuine health care reform.” Another Koch-backed group, Americans for Prosperity, has included Obamacare repeal among the items that constituents should encourage their elected officials to pursue.
Is this a bait-and-switch operation? Certainly, conservative groups have been accused of demanding, and ginning up high hopes for, Obamacare repeal simply to attract attention and raise money. More charitably, one could argue that after the failed shutdown, these groups see repeal as a multi-step process that has to start now but can only be completed after the president leaves office.
But there are other signs to suggest that the health care law is simply becoming an ingrained part of the fabric of U.S. society. As Talking Points Memo reported on Tuesday, deeply conservative Wyoming is now contemplating expanding Medicaid under Obamacare. The Weekly Standard reported that Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.), a Republican stalwart in a tight re-election fight, has “been pretty much silent on Obamacare.” And The Wall Street Journal reported that Senate Republicans may pursue smaller Obamacare reforms if they take control of the chamber in November. Rather than repeal, for example, they would look at ending the law’s tax on medical devices.
In that same article, a spokesman for the Heritage Foundation painted such a move as an appreciable retreat by Republicans. But a Senate GOP leadership aide told The Huffington Post that focusing on repealing the medical device tax didn’t preclude members from pushing for the law's full repeal as well.
“While Republicans remain committed to a repeal of Obamacare, we also support a step-by-step, commonsense approach to health reform that actually lowers costs,” the aide said. “There are a number of bipartisan bills that are being blocked by the current Democrat majority in the Senate for partisan reasons. Republicans would like to bring those bipartisan bills to a vote.”
Want more updates from Sam? Sign up for his newsletter, Spam Stein.