When John Boehner wrapped his hand around the speaker’s gavel last week, he pledged that he and his fellow House Republicans would bring an un-Gingrichian posture to their jobs. “The American people have humbled us,” Boehner said. Then he belied those words by moving forward with plans to vote to scrap the Affordable Care Act. Obamacare is, of course, in no imminent danger—on January 12, the House will pass a bill repealing the ACA and that will be that, since there’s no way the Senate’s Democratic majority will do the same, nor would Obama sign such legislation if it did. But it’s a mistake to dismiss the House’s move as mere symbolism. Rather, it’s the first shot in what’s almost certain to be a multiyear GOP effort to undo Obamacare. And that means it’s actually good news for Democrats.
After all, look at the marks health-care reform has left on anyone who’s dared attempt it! Bill Clinton tried, and his failure wound up costing the Democrats Congress; for her role in trying to extend coverage to all Americans, Hillary earned a decadelong image-rehabilitation project. Obama tried and managed to succeed—and Democrats lost the House because of that. In trying to repeal Obamacare, Republicans are taking their own turn at health-care reform. In the process, they will wade into Washington’s stickiest tar pit, one positively jeggingslike in its power to make people look foolish.
Part of the problem for the GOP is that many individual parts of Obamacare are popular. Do Republicans really want to reopen the “doughnut hole” Obamacare closed and start charging seniors more for prescription drugs? Congressman Anthony Weiner gave a typically astringent version of the Democratic talking point to the Washington Post: “Republicans are against a lot of things, but they are for kicking young Americans off their parents’ insurance plans, for reinstating co-payments for preventive measures like cancer screenings, and for denying children coverage based on preexisting conditions.” What’s more, the Congressional Budget Office has projected that undoing the ACA would increase the federal deficit by around $230 billion over the next decade. How will supposedly deficit-obsessed Republicans explain that? Some Democrats are even viewing the repeal campaign as an opportunity—they believe it will allow them to make the case for Obamacare that they obviously failed to articulate the first time around.
But the most important factor is simply that Obamacare, for better or worse, is now the health-care status quo, and if recent history has shown us anything, it’s that efforts to change that status quo are harmful to your political health. That’s why sane Republicans like David Frum were apoplectic when Obamacare passed. Rather than try to bargain with Obama, the GOP chose a course of all-out opposition. When that failed, they were left with a health-care system that they had no hand in shaping. “Legislative majorities come and go,” Frum wrote at the time. “This health-care bill is forever.” If Boehner and his fellow House Republicans ignore that reality, they may find their own legislative majority remarkably ephemeral.