As we know, repealing Obamacare will cause 32 million Americans to lose insurance. But even if that doesn’t kill them, the stress over the ongoing repeal battle might. Obamacare repeal — the GOP’s version of Jason Voorhees — is getting yet another moment in the sun.
In a perverse way, I feel sorry for the GOP. Not because they’re having such trouble stripping healthcare away from tens of millions of Americans, mind you, but because they seem to be so hopelessly confused about why they’re doing it. They’re like U.S. soldiers who were marooned on remote islands in the Pacific after World War II: dressed in battle gear, armed to the teeth, and ready to continue fighting a war they don’t realize ended long ago.
Except in this scenario, the marooned soldiers have an atomic bomb at their disposal and appear hell-bent on using it; consequences be damned.
Yesterday, the Senate voted to open debate on whether or not to repeal the Affordable Care Act. It’s being touted as a political win for the GOP, despite the fact that Republicans needed Vice President Pence to break a 50-50 tie on a vote that is, in essence, a formality.
The alarming lack of support for even the very notion of talking about repealing Obamacare was overshadowed, as it usually is in these moments, by Senator John McCain — just two weeks removed from surgery and a cancer diagnosis — seizing the spotlight in his so-called “triumphant” return to the Senate.
McCain rolled out his “Maverick” act for perhaps the final time, giving a stirring speech excoriating the GOP’s plan to repeal Obamacare and its inability to produce a suitable replacement… moments after voting “Yes” on the motion to open debate on it. It was classic McCain: find the nearest microphone and say all the right things into it; then, when everyone’s back is turned, quietly vote however his party wants him to. (At least this time he changed the order around.)
So what’s going to happen next?
The optimist in me wants to believe that the GOP is merely putting the finishing touches on its posturing against Obamacare. For all the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments they’ve done about the Affordable Care Act since its passage, the truth is, the GOP needs Obamacare just as much as their constituents do.
They used Obamacare as a convenient symbol of everything that was “wrong” with the country under President Obama. Their fear mongering and dire predictions helped propel them to majorities in both chambers of Congress by painting Obamacare as a grave problem that only they could fix. In fact, their Chicken Little act is part of the reason why Trump was elected.
Even now, under the Trump administration, Republican legislators — and Trump himself — continue to hide behind Obamacare as a catch-all excuse for not getting much done. No wall? Well, we can’t do it until Obamacare is taken care of. Tax reform? Sorry, can’t get to that right now; Obamacare first. Healthcare reform? We sure are trying, but you don’t know how big of a mess this Obamacare stuff is!
As long as the GOP can position Obamacare as a bogeyman, the misdirection of their constituents’ anger about jobs, the economy, the “welfare state,” etc. can continue. In essence, congressional GOP members have a permanent get-out-of-jail-free card for their actions. If it’s pointed out that a piece of legislation they’re trying to push through is damaging or clearly prioritizes the interest of their donor class over their average constituents, all they have to do is pivot back to Obama; everyone gets riled up, and they stop paying attention to the real story.
Why would anybody give up the legislative equivalent of a bulletproof vest? Because by and large, congressional Republicans are morons.
After seven years of denouncing Obamacare, Republicans have painted themselves into a corner. They managed to sell a large portion of the population on the idea that Obamacare is a disaster, it’s failing, and that it’s in a death spiral (we can thank Marco Rubio for that one). The tactic certainly gained Republican seats in Congress, but their sales job was too effective; now that they’re in power, public pressure is mounting on them to do something about it. They’re stuck: leaving Obamacare alone is effectively an admission that it’s not nearly as bad or damaging as they pretend it is; on the other hand, repealing Obamacare means that, no matter how they try to spin it, Republicans will own the fallout.
It would seem to me that, political gamesmanship aside, the right move would be to quietly back away from Obamacare repeal. They could even save face by saying something like Boy, Obamacare is just such a mess that untangling it would risk too many of our constituents’ lives. Looks like we’re stuck with it!
Unfortunately, the cynic in me sees a much more likely — and disturbing — possibility: Senate Republicans will repeal the bill because they think their base values political victories over healthcare; because they’re too stubborn to concede that President Obama came up with a bill that, on the whole, works pretty well; and because they’re terrified of the prospect of approaching the 2018 midterms without any legislative advancements under their belts.
I would like to believe there are enough principled GOP senators to block any legislation that either cuts healthcare outright to tens of millions of people or replaces it with an inadequate substitute. But the current Republican Congress is a game of musical chairs — nobody wants to be the last man standing, even if they’re standing for a good reason.
I hope my cynicism is unfounded. But every day that this debate continues, I can’t help but think we’re coming to the ledge, and the GOP is going to throw us into the abyss out of spite.