It is tempting to think that repealing or undermining Obamacare will result in a massive backlash against Republican legislators. When people start dying from lack of medical care, Republican legislators will start losing elections. Right? The assumption is rooted in progressives’ inner sense of justice or democratic karma. Even Biden dared Republicans to repeal, illustrating that he shares the same assumption.
But the assumption is wrong. Dangerously wrong. There is no good reason to think Republicans will pay a political price for undermining Obamacare.
Why? There are several reasons, and together they demonstrate how important it is for progressives to stop the repeal.
First, we are living in a full-scale misinformation machine. Trump calls all news he doesn’t like “fake news,” ignoring the distinction between fake news and inaccurate news. Large segments of the population believed that the election was going to be stolen from Trump and that, to use only one example, Clinton ran a child sex ring out of the basement of a basement-less pizza parlor. The power of deception increases with the power of the office. We are seeing merely the beginning of how much the minds of the population can be poisoned. The assumption that Republicans will face a voter backlash assumes also that the voters are informed on the causes. Trump and Republicans will do (and having been doing) everything they can to prevent that from happening. They have succeeded and will continue to succeed.
Second and related, the first year of Trump’s administration will be soaked in controversy and absurdity. We already have this problem. The news cycle will be so quick and the stories so dumbfounding that the results of the Obamacare repeal attempt will be obscured and hidden to everyone but the most ardent political junkies. Today’s political news is too cacophonous for most people. As a result, they simply elect to shut off the news and call it all biased and dishonest. Trump will deflect everything and the cries of sick people will fall on deaf and preoccupied ears. Even those who suffer from losing coverage will not be sure about what is happening. There will simply be too many shocking stories. Finding the truth about Obamacare will be a hopelessly complicated project. The notion that Republicans are at fault for the death of many Americans will never solidify in the minds of voters, especially those in red states.
Third, Obamacare is complex and its problems are complex. Trump said in his circus of a press conference, as he did several times throughout the campaign, that Obamacare is unsustainable and will fail under its own weight. Right there, in those very words, we see the beginning of the excuse. No matter what happens and no matter how many people die, it will all be painted as the result of Obamacare’s internal deficiencies and inevitable crash. Even the Republican voters who depend on the program, as they are dying from lack of treatment, will blame Obama and the Democrats. This is the genius of the ‘defund’ plan. It keeps the Obamacare structure in place but strips out its efficacy. Hence, when people’s healthcare fails them, they are still in Obamacare. They will associate the failure with Obama and be reminded of Trump’s genius predictions and warnings, as well as Republicans’ adamant fight from the beginning to solve the problem by ending the program. Those already opposed to the repeal will know that it was Republicans who cut the funding and caused the downward spiral. But for those inclined to support Trump, when he says, “Obamacare is failing. Look at your terrible coverage,” they will see nothing but confirmation of their loyalty. And Republicans in Congress will go unscathed.
Finally, what about after Obamacare is ‘repealed’ and we move to the ‘replace’ phase? We know what will happen. Republicans like Paul Ryan and Tom Price will propose plans that do little to help poor people. Democrats will oppose the plans and want provisions similar to those that were in the ACA. Republicans will have an easy response: we tried that and it failed miserably. Then the Democrat’s opposition will be viewed as obstruction. It will be viewed as Democrats preventing people from having access to life-saving treatment. The Republicans want to pass legislation! They want to help people! And Democrats are preventing it. The Republicans will appear as heroes with solutions in hand. The Democrats will be villains who cannot get over the past and their failed socialism. They will be called hypocrites for the days when they decried Republican obstructionism. Every Democratic defense of the ACA will appear hypothetical, abstract, and nostalgic—about what could have been if Clinton had won.
This matters because the hope that the the Republican repealers will face political retribution is profoundly misplaced. It is unfounded to think they will pay any political price for throwing millions of people off their insurance (as shocking as that is to contemplate). What this means is that the pre-repeal stage is much more important. It all hinges on the repeal. Everything must be done to stop it. Because thinking that Republicans will pay the price down the line is only wishful thinking.