07/17/2013 07:45 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Republicans' Anti-Obamacare 2014 Strategy


I was listening to a random Republican in a television interview recently (which is a dignified way of saying I forgot who it was and am too lazy to look it up), and was struck by how open he was about his party's 2014 election strategy, over a year in advance. Essentially, this strategy will be: "We're running against Obamacare, again." Obamacare will be the number one issue Republicans are building their election strategy around, the politician easily admitted. This sounds pretty plausible to me, especially considering that the House is spending its time attacking Obamacare once again (I forget, is this the 38th time or the 39th? Another factoid I'm too lazy to look up, I suppose). But I can't help but wonder whether running an anti-Obamacare strategy is going to turn out more like 2012 for Republicans than 2010.

Fear and hatred for Obama's signature and now-eponymous law worked wonders for the Republican Party in 2010, in Obama's first midterm election. The year of the Tea Party swept a whole bunch of Republicans into office, and handed them the House of Representatives. This magic will, obviously, be what Republicans are trying to recapture in 2014 when no presidential nominees are on the ballot. But they tried a similar thing in 2012, and it flat-out didn't work. Perhaps because Republicans were asking the public to believe something that was not just false, but 180 degrees counter to reality ("Republicans are the saviors of Medicare!"), the issue just never gained the traction they thought it would, and Republicans got trounced in the polls. So will the Obamacare issue play out more like 2010 or 2012 this time around?

That may be an impossible-to-answer question. It's always tough to figure out what the public "meant" or "was saying" in any given election. Facile answers aren't always the right ones, even if the media gloms onto an unsubstantiated storyline and repeats it ad nauseam. But Republicans running full-out anti-Obamacare this time around is going to be radically different, because voters will soon be able to compare Republican rhetoric to actual reality. How this influences both the Republicans' strategy and the vote itself may be surprising.

In the Republican right-wing echo chamber, there is absolute and unequivocal certainty on the issue of Obamacare. It will be a train wreck. The entire thing is unworkable and will be a disaster of unparalleled proportions, and the American people will hate it with a white-hot fury. Ask any true conservative, they will give you chapter and verse on the subject. Republicans have convinced themselves that this outcome is preordained and cannot be avoided.

But what if they're wrong?

I really don't think many Republicans have even considered this possibility. They are convinced it so far-fetched that it's not even worth even their minimal consideration. Obamacare will fail, people will hate it, end of story. Or perhaps, projecting into the future: "...and once Obamacare fails, more Republicans will be elected and the damn thing will be repealed."

But what if it works reasonably well? What if (gasp!) people actually like it?

This is all speculative, of course. But any prognostications of future elections is nothing more than making such guesses, so it's a subject worth considering. What if Obamacare works? How will Republicans react?

This week, House Republicans have gleefully jumped on the announcement by the White House that the employer mandate part of the law will be delayed for one year, and have decided to force a bunch of votes in the House so that Democrats will be put in a pickle (that's the idea, at any rate). They're doing their best to keep the issue alive and in front of the cameras, which makes perfect sense if they're really hitching their 2014 wagon to the anti-Obamacare issue. This will only intensify as the full implementation of Obamacare begins later this year.

From now until (at the very least) next summer, Republican consultants will be combing the country for stories of what a rampant failure Obamacare truly is. Every person paying more for their premium will be appearing in a political ad on your local television screen, along with every case where someone scraped their knee and didn't get a bandage. Every possible story of dysfunction will be spotlighted and exaggerated beyond comprehension. That's what making a whole election hinge on one issue is all about, after all. They'll trot out some weepy family members who are fully convinced that Grandma died because Barack Obama killed her. Think I am just using hyperbole to make a point? Just wait and see. The "Mediscare" ads will look tame by comparison, that's my guess.

But the public (or the portion thereof who decide elections) always weighs partisan political claims against their own experience. And this means not just their own personal experiences, but also secondhand ones communicated to them by extended family members, neighbors, friends, coworkers, and everyone else they meet. So if a politician tells them something which runs absolutely counter to their own experience, they won't believe it. And if Obamacare turns out well for a huge majority, then there will be a whole lot of people who just won't buy the claims Republicans are making. "Well, that's not what happened to me/my child/my friend" rules over partisan rhetoric, to put this another way.

This could be an especially acute problem for Republicans, considering how much time and energy they've already put into painting Obamacare as evil. They've frightened a whole bunch of people with claims that are either dubious at best, or downright lies (my favorite: Sarah Palin's "death panels" who decide which children are fit to live). When these things don't actually happen, Republicans are going to have to pivot a bit politically ("OK, it's not as bad as we said it was going to be -- but it's still really bad!"). This shouldn't be too hard for them to do, but it will give Democratic candidates some valuable soundbites to use in debates ("You said three years ago that everyone would lose access to the doctor of their choice, and that did not happen").

But even allowing for this pivot, what if the doomsday predictions don't happen across the board? The news broke today -- amusingly enough, as House Republicans were posturing for the cameras -- that New York insurance premiums are going to fall by at least fifty percent under Obamacare. That's pretty good news for people in New York who are shopping for insurance on the open market. And New York's not the only state which has shown that the marketplace does indeed work (a tenet that used to be part of the conservative playbook, at least when they came up with the Obamacare idea in the first place). Prices will go up for a small number (mostly young people who won't be able to buy substandard policies any more), but will come down for the vast majority of the buying public.

Transitions are always messy. There will probably be enough scare stories for Republicans to mine for political ads. Not everything is going to work out perfectly right out of the box. But even having said all of that, what if Obamacare does indeed succeed? What happens if a whole lot of people are happy with the changes? "My brother was finally able to buy real insurance even with his pre-existing condition" is going to change a lot of hearts and minds out there. The Obamacare exchanges are going to start this October. That is over one year before the 2014 elections. By the time we vote next year, Obamacare will be fully up and running and people will be making their choices for their second year, at the exchanges. This is plenty of time for the American public to weigh the reality of Obamacare against the distorted picture that its opponents have been painting for four years now. The Republicans so overplayed their "it's never gonna work!" hand that it has actually lowered the bar for what could be considered Obamacare's success. People have such low expectations for the program that if it meets or exceeds them, they'll be reasonably satisfied. Which is a huge danger for the Republican Party's expressed 2014 anti-Obamacare strategy -- and one that they likely don't even see right now.

The real irony will be if Republicans realize this before it's too late, and make a much larger pivot before the election. If they start actually addressing the issue and putting forth real solutions to fix whatever problems crop up (campaigning, perhaps, on: "We're going to fix it so it works"), then it will signal the ultimate defeat of the anti-Obamacare strategy. It'll actually be very easy to tell when this happens (if it does). It will be precisely the point that every single Republican candidate stops calling it "Obamacare." If you hear multiple Republicans -- within the same week -- use the phrase "Affordable Care Act" then you know that they're waving the white flag on the issue.

Because if this scenario does indeed play out, that's going to be the bitterest pill for Republicans to swallow. They were the ones, after all, who insisted upon calling it "Obamacare" in the first place. And if people like it, it will forevermore be to Obama's credit, due to this Republican branding effort. So if they actually stop using the term, it'll be because they know they've lost the battle for good.


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