The implosion of the GOP’s all-or-nothing assault on Obamacare might have started on Election Night 2010. Republicans thought they had been validated in their relentless attacks on the law, swept to huge victories in the House. Four years ago, it seemed unthinkable that they would ever waver.
As recently as last fall, conservatives felt as confident as they’d ever been when the federal health insurance exchange HealthCare.gov failed miserably in its first days. It reinvigorated their faith in fighting the law after the U.S. Supreme Court and 2012 presidential election dealt that thinking a serious blow.
But since the heady days of cancelled policies and a balky website, the political viability of absolutist repeal has been on a downward spiral. It was probably a decline made inevitable when President Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney in 2012, which ensured that repeal would at least be vetoed for another four years. But that decline has been slow enough that it can be difficult to detect.
Even though Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who fancies himself to be a thought leader in the party, still tweets #FullRepeal with regularity, he’s become an increasingly lonely voice. The use of Obamacare as an effective Republican attack looks almost at its end. It’s been a long time coming.
“It really is extraordinary in a lot of ways. Republicans were absolutely convinced that the antipathy toward the ACA would be the ticket to victory,” Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told TPM. “Now they still may have a ticket to victory, but it’s not going to be that.”
Ornstein called the GOP’s singular focus on attacking Obamacare — and inability to foresee that it would eventually collapse on them — “a textbook case of mass psychology.”
“They basically worked themselves up into a frenzy over the notion that this was a government takeover of health care and socialism,” he said. “I think they convinced themselves that this was so awful, that they denied any objective reality.”
The evidence that Obamacare has lost its salience as a political attack has been mounting in recent months, as the 2014 elections kick into gear. The latest clue is a Wednesday report from the New York Times that analyzed official releases from congressional offices. This summer compared to last, the number of releases related to Obamacare fell from 530 to 138.
“The relative dearth of Obamacare-titled statements this August shows that (Republicans) have found other issues to raise with constituents as the midterm elections approach,” the Times’s Derek Willis wrote, “like investigations into the Internal Revenue Service and Department of Veterans Affairs.”
That conclusion is backed up by other recent indicators. Bloomberg reported last week that anti-Obamacare ads had been disappearing from airwaves in key Senate states. The number of ads in North Carolina, where Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) has been targeted over the law, fell by half from April to July. A similar trend has been tracked in Arkansas and Louisiana, both states with incumbent Democrats on defense over the law. Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor even had the gall to go up with an ad that put a positive spin on Obamacare, though it didn’t mention the law by name. A group supporting Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) has done the same.
The GOP’s anti-Obamacare strategy — which the RNC Chair Reince Priebus declared in March was enough to give them control of Congress — died not from one fatal blow but by dozens of smaller cuts leading up to the midterm elections.
First, the party stuck with an absolutist position of “repeal or nothing.” Political strategists told TPM back in February that the GOP could have put Democrats in a tough position if they were running on how they’d fix the law. Instead, repeal has remained party doctrine and, despite some occasional waffling after the law picked up momentum when it hit 8 million enrollees, there has been little appetite for any kind of compromise.
“If they wanted to win this issue, they would move their public position to be for fix, and Democrats would be stuck defending the status quo of the law and would be in a much tougher situation,” one Democratic operative told TPM in February. “But they’ve created an internal situation where they can’t do that.”
In their glee over the law’s disastrous debut in October, the GOP also failed to accurately gauge how much Obamacare would animate voters more than a year later. The website got fixed. Millions of people signed up. And now some states are reporting that 2015 premiums — one of Republicans’ last hopes for an attack line before November — are going down. The attack lines are disappearing.
Again, they should have seen this coming. Back in March, more than half of Americans said that they were tired of debating Obamacare and wanted to move onto other issues. Republicans seem to have finally caught up.
The politics of Obamacare were never as good for Republicans as they said or necessarily as bad as some Democrats seemed to fear. Dating back to March, polls found that how the law in the midterm elections would affect voters was up in the air
The GOP hasn’t discarded Obamacare completely, of course. It was always primarily a tool for turning out the base, and many Republican voters still see the law as a picture of everything wrong with the Obama presidency. Colorado GOP Senate candidate Cory Gardner hit Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) earlier this month in an ad over canceled plans under the law, including Gardner’s own family’s, a real callback to last fall.
But that ad is the exception that proves the rule. As the Times noted on Wednesday, Republicans have turned to other issues to try to fire up their base. Obamacare is now an undercard at best. We’ve come such a long way.