Obamacare — actual, real Obamacare, with doctors and cards and everything — has been operational for nearly a week now. It has been … extremely boring. It does not look like Stalinist collectivization. There aren’t even any beheadings. It looks like regular medical insurance, except several million more people now have it than had it before.
How conservatives will respond next to this mundane new world has become the subject of combative speculation. Greg Sargent predicts Republicans will soon come to terms with the law and begin negotiating for incremental improvements. On the right, Conn Carroll angrily replies that the law’s demise remains “inevitable” and liberals will turn against the law, citing Michael Moore as a harbinger of pro-single-payer liberals who will help Republicans dismantle Obamacare, somehow.
I predict a slightly different outcome than either of these two. Obamacare will neither collapse, nor will Republicans accept its legitimacy, but the nature of their opposition will instead slowly morph. Gleeful predictions of imminent collapse will give way to bitter recriminations at the nefarious tactics used to make the law work. Obamacare will cease to be the something certain to destroy Obama and become something Obama has gotten away with.
In recent weeks, it has begun to dawn on some conservatives that the actuarial death spiral they confidently predicted for years — in which the young and healthy shun the exchanges, leading to sicker and costlier patients and rising prices, in turn driving out the remaining healthy customers — may not actually transpire. It won’t for several reasons, one of them being a set of protections embedded in the law itself called "risk corridors and reinsurance," which compensate insurance companies that wind up with a sicker customer base in the first three years of the law’s operation, thus preventing a death spiral.
Republicans, having just learned of these provisions, demand that they be abolished, to hasten the death spirals. Repentant immigration reformer Marco Rubio is at the forefront with a bill to strike them from the law. Obviously Obama would never sign such a bill, but Charles Krauthammer offers a solution: Demand he sign it or else refuse to lift the debt ceiling. The program is “a huge government bailout,” argues Krauthammer. This is true in the sense that any cost overrun by a defense contractor is also a huge government bailout — which is to say, it’s not true.
But it feels true, and that is the important thing. The premise that Republicans will seek to alter Obamacare in conservative-friendly ways assumes that the policy design of health-care law is their primary motivating force. Everything about the history of Republican health-care thought suggests the opposite. Just five years ago, Mitt Romney was running on a platform of taking his Massachusetts plan, with its individual mandate, national, provoking only the mildest grumbling on the right.
Obamacare is a gaping wound in the Republican psyche, representing not only the rise of a majority moocher class but a potential symbol of a successful Obama presidency. Health-care reform, George F. Will has ludicrously if representatively declared, amounts to Obama’s “single” achievement. If it lives, it will vindicate his presidency as a liberal Reagan, rather than the reprise of Jimmy Carter (or George W. Bush) Republicans wish him to be.
If and when the law melds into the national fabric, the proximate Republican response will not be to adapt their policy ideas to it, but to denounce it as a kind of stolen law. You can see this spirit creeping out not only in Rubio’s proposal but elsewhere. Eleven Republican attorneys general have denounced Obama's various administrative maneuvers to make the law functional as illegal. “It was powerful corporate America, with its influential lobbyists, that got an additional year to meet the insurance mandate — when individuals did not,” complains The Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberly Strassel, “It was the unions that got a reprieve from a health-insurance tax — when individuals and small businesses were left to pick up the tab.” The hapless Obamacare is slowly giving way to the devious Obamacare.
In the very long run, Obamacare may become a thing, like Social Security and Medicare, that Republicans initially predict will destroy the fabric of capitalism but eventually accept and then finally swear up and down they will not harm. In the shorter term, it will remain a bloody shirt. Obamacare will be Benghazi or the IRS scandal writ large.