COLUMN-Why the Obamacare fight never ends

by Reuters
Thursday, 24 April 2014 15:47 GMT

(Bill Schneider is professor of public and international affairs at George Mason University and a resident scholar at Third Way. The opinions expressed are his own.)

By Bill Schneider

April 24 (Reuters) - "I know every American isn't going to agree with this law," President Barack Obama said about the Affordable Care Act at his April 17 news briefing, "but I think we can agree that it's well past time to move on."

The Republican response? Same as General Anthony McAuliffe's reply when the German army demanded that U.S. forces surrender at the Battle of the Bulge during World War Two: "Nuts!"

To be precise, after Obama said we can agree to move on, the National Republican Congressional Committee tweeted, "No, we can't."

With 8 million people signed up for Obamacare - and perhaps as many as 14 million covered by the law - repealing Obamacare looks like a lost cause. "This thing is working," the president announced.

The fact that Obamacare is working should shut down the debate. But that's not happening. Why not? Six reasons.

1. Conservatives will never agree that it's working - no matter what the evidence shows. They're ideologues. Ideologues believe that if something is wrong, it can't possibly work. Even if it does work.

Remember when President George W. Bush announced a "surge" of U.S. troops in Iraq? That was in January 2007, right after voters repudiated the Iraq war in the 2006 midterm. Democrats were enraged. Bush was giving voters the finger.

But the 20,000 additional U.S. troops helped suppress the stunning spiral of violence in Iraq. Republicans insisted that the surge worked. Did that get antiwar Democrats to come around and support the war in Iraq? Not hardly. To them, the war was wrong. So the surge couldn't possibly work. Of course it was temporary. But it lasted long enough for the U.S. to get out of Iraq. When U.S. troops left, the situation deteriorated. During Chuck Hagel's Senate confirmation hearings for secretary of defense, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) went crazy trying to force Hagel to admit that the surge worked. The surge suppressed the violence, but it had absolutely no effect on U.S. opposition to the war.

2. Obamacare is supposed to be an entitlement program, like Social Security and Medicare. They're universal programs: Everyone who pays into the system is entitled to benefit. You get Social Security and Medicare benefits whether or not you actually need the money. We bribe the middle class to support entitlements. That's why they're so expensive. And so popular.

A social welfare program targets benefits by need. Only people who can show they actually need the benefit get it. Under Obamacare, some people who have to purchase health insurance can't afford it. They have to be subsidized. Those subsidies are being paid for with new taxes and higher premiums on people who can afford it. That's a transfer of wealth.

Programs targeted by need have always been controversial. How can we be sure people don't take advantage of the system? That the benefits only go to the "truly needy"? A lot of better off people don't like the idea of paying subsidies to those who don't think health insurance is important or who don't take care of themselves. "It is viewed more as a social welfare program than a social insurance program," longtime Obama adviser David Axelrod told the New York Times.

3. Throughout all the years of the healthcare debate - under both President Bill Clinton and Obama - one fact remained indisputable: a solid majority of Americans were satisfied with their healthcare and their health insurance. Seventy-one percent were satisfied with both in a 2009 CNN poll.

Obama promised several times in 2009, "If you like your healthcare plan, you'll be able to keep your healthcare plan, period." It was politically devastating when the Affordable Care Act went into effect last year and people started losing their insurance plans because they didn't meet Obamacare standards. They believe the president lied to them.

True, only a small number of people with individual policies were affected by the cancellations. But as Representative David Price (D-N.C.) put it, "There was an ability to exploit the unknown, to exploit the fear of people losing something that they have. That wasn't true with Social Security and Medicare."

People's biggest concern about Obamacare has always been that it will take what they already have and like and make it worse.

4. New insurance premiums for 2015 will be announced this fall - just in time for the midterm election. They will include new premiums for employers, who have to comply with the law starting next year.

Last week, the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation announced that insurance premiums under Obamacare are expected rise by less than 3 percent in 2015 - a smaller increase than expected. If that turns out not to be true, there could be a huge political backlash.

5. The groups that are benefiting most from Obamacare are not the groups most likely to vote in a midterm election. They include young people, poor people, minorities and single and working women. One thing that could get them out to vote is a serious Republican threat to end Obamacare. But that can't happen as long as Obama is in the White House. Saving Obamacare will be a better issue for Democrats in 2016, when a new president will be elected, than in 2014. Especially if Republicans control both the House and Senate in 2016.

6. Republicans see the 2014 midterm as a national referendum on Obamacare. Obama urged Democrats to "forcefully defend and be proud of" the new law. But do Democrats really want to nationalize this year's midterm election? Some Democratic strategists say yes, because that may bring out more Democrats who usually don't vote in midterms.

But the key question this year is which party will control the Senate. The Washington Post lists 11 competitive Senate races. Nine of those races are in states carried by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012.

Bringing out a presidential-level turnout in those states may not do Democrats any good. (Bill Schneider)

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