Fix Obamacare? Not So Fast, Republicans

The conservative base ensures GOP candidates will support only repealing Obamacare. That’s good news for Democrats.

U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston speaks U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) before President Barack Obama speaks to a small crowd at the Savannah Technical College March 2, 2010 in Savannah, Georgia. The President's visit is part of the White House's Main Street Tour where he meets with members of the community to share ideas for rebuilding the economy in an effort to spend some time outside of Washington and talk to American families about what they are experiencing during these tough economic times.
National Journal
Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
Dec. 3, 2013, midnight

Two re­cent epis­odes demon­strate the near total lack of polit­ic­al flex­ib­il­ity af­forded to Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates on Obama­care, con­straints that could un­der­mine their ef­forts to take ad­vant­age of the health care law’s deep­en­ing un­pop­ular­ity. And they show why the White House, as it pre­pares for its own pub­lic re­la­tions blitz, has an op­por­tun­ity to score some rare polit­ic­al points on an is­sue that has dogged it con­sid­er­ably the last two months. 

Demo­crats con­tin­ue to in­sist even after the Af­ford­able Care Act’s dis­astrous rol­lout that voters want to fix — not re­peal — the law, and polling sug­gests they’re right. Re­pub­lic­ans ap­pear to have an ob­vi­ous re­join­der: They, too, could call for the law to be fixed, not out­right re­pealed, to pre­serve its pop­u­lar ele­ments (like keep­ing young adults on their par­ents’ health care plans).

But as a pair of Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates have found out, do­ing so is easi­er in the­ory than prac­tice, sig­nal­ing that the fix-not-re­peal frame could con­tin­ue to provide Demo­crats an open­ing on an is­sue that is oth­er­wise poised to weigh heav­ily on their 2014 elec­tion hopes.

Terri Lynn Land, who has emerged as the pre­sumed GOP nom­in­ee in Michigan, earli­er this month said dur­ing a ra­dio in­ter­view that the party had moved past its re­peal ef­fort. “After you pass bills, you have to go back and do fixes,” she said at the time. “That’s not un­usu­al. That’s something I’ve done in the past, and that’s something we need to do here.”

Hours later, the Land cam­paign is­sued a state­ment ree­m­phas­iz­ing her sup­port for re­peal­ing Obama­care.

The mo­tiv­a­tion for her walk-back was ob­vi­ous: She doesn’t face a Re­pub­lic­an op­pon­ent in the primary, but a soften­ing tone to­ward the party’s most hated piece of le­gis­la­tion in a gen­er­a­tion is the surest way to draw an in­tra­party chal­lenge.

The scen­ario re­peated it­self in Geor­gia. Last week, Rep. Jack King­ston — one of five Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate can­did­ates in the Peach State — sug­ges­ted the law’s best ele­ments should be pre­served. His need for cla­ri­fic­a­tion was more im­me­di­ate than Land’s: Sen­ate rival Paul Broun cri­ti­cized his state­ment a day later, call­ing any ef­fort to con­tin­ue Obama­care “ab­so­lutely ir­re­spons­ible,” ac­cord­ing to The At­lanta Journ­al-Con­sti­tu­tion.

On Sunday, King­ston ap­peared on Fox News to re­mind view­ers he had voted “to kill” Obama­care 40 times.

“I think if we just hope sit back and hope it falls apart, it’s the wrong thing,” he said. “If it’s tee­ter­ing near the edge of the cliff, we should go ahead and push it over.”

Both walk-backs un­der­score just how little room for dis­sent Re­pub­lic­ans al­low on the Af­ford­able Care Act, es­pe­cially for those seek­ing of­fice in 2014. Such lock­step agree­ment has let the party fight the law from a united front and con­trib­uted to the sense among voters that pas­sage of Obama­care was deeply par­tis­an. But it also nearly elim­in­ates the kind of polit­ic­al nimble­ness that would al­low Re­pub­lic­ans to bet­ter take ad­vant­age of the in­creas­ingly un­pop­u­lar re­form. It’s the same stub­born­ness that con­trib­uted to Re­pub­lic­ans’ doomed ef­fort to de­fund the health care law, which scarred the GOP’s im­age.

That doesn’t mean Demo­crats have a chance to turn Obama­care in­to an ad­vant­age next year. The law’s troubles have sent Pres­id­ent Obama’s ap­prov­al rat­ings to the low­est point of his pres­id­ency, and sev­er­al state polls have shown a cor­res­pond­ing rise in dis­ap­prov­al among Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors up for reelec­tion next year. Those met­rics are more im­port­ant in de­term­in­ing the law’s im­pact on 2014.

But Demo­crats need to sal­vage what be­ne­fit they can from Obama­care. And so far, Re­pub­lic­ans are lend­ing them a help­ing hand.

This story has been up­dated.

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