In a way, the phenomenon is reminiscent of McCarthyism, named after Sen. Joe McCarthy, who in the 1950s accused U.S. government officials and others of secretly sympathizing with communism. But Obamacare McCarthyism takes that to a new level, Ornstein argued.
"Even then it was pretty clear that you had a lot of Republicans -- it was very clear that President [Dwight D.] Eisenhower viewed what McCarthy was doing as appalling," he said. "We call it McCarthyism when you're basically slimed for something you said or did. But even that was different because you had a party that was divided -- not on the issue of communism, but on whether it was fair to [attack people as communist sympathizers]."
The accusations in the fall were so devastating that GOP leaders, against their better instincts, caved and shut down the federal government for 16 days to prove their anti-Obamacare mettle. Two months later, as tensions reach a fever pitch over the law's rollout woes, the McCarthyite insinuations continue to spring up when Republicans profess less than an unvarnished desire to destroy Obamacare at all costs, no matter the likelihood of success or the impacts of the scorched-earth strategy on the lives of their constituents.
A recent target is Rep. Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican running for the Senate, who last week told a local radio station that it's not "responsible" to sit back and watch Obamacare "fall to pieces on its own." He was touting his bill to exempt more businesses from the law's requirement to provide insurance to employees.
"A lot of conservatives say, 'Nah, let's just step back and let this thing fall to pieces on its own. But I don't think that's always the responsible thing to do," he said. "We need to be looking for things that improve health care overall for all of us. And if there is something in Obamacare, we need to know about it."
The conservative pushback was merciless. "Jack Kingston has Surrendered on Obamacare," blared a headline on RedState.com, accusing the congressman of "[c]oming to terms with Obamacare" and insisting conservatives must not "acquiesce" to the law. One of Kingston's Republican opponents echoed the attack.
"Just yesterday, Congressman Jack Kingston wondered aloud on a radio program if allowing ObamaCare to fail is the 'responsible' thing to do," said Rep. Paul Brown (R-GA). "Unlike Congressman Kingston, Dr. Paul Broun is certain that allowing ObamaCare to continue is absolutely irresponsible. Dr. Broun is not trying to fix ObamaCare; he is working to fully repeal it."
Another victim is Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), who is fending off a primary challenge from Liz Cheney in 2014. An outside group called Americans for Job Security last week released an ad attacking him for praising the concept of insurance market exchanges -- the vehicle for Obamacare, which was modeled on conservative principles -- early in 2010. "These exchanges can be good," Enzi said then, in a clip that the ad repeatedly plays.
"Good?" says the narrator in the 30-second ad. "Wyoming's Obamacare exchange has the most expensive premiums in the country, and it's marred by glitches. Tell Mike Enzi we don't like these liberal, big government Obamacare exchanges." The attack forced Enzi's campaign to defend him by touting his efforts to "stop the worst parts of the law."
A third -- and most prominent -- target is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Last week his primary challenger, Matt Bevin, spoke of a "rather disturbing trend" in which the GOP leader has ostensibly been working to protect Obamacare, despite claiming otherwise.
"We're seeing yet again the fact that behind the scenes and now with increasing amounts of overtness he's really working actively to ensure that this is not a piece of legislation that is ended," Bevin told reporters.
Despite his ruthless opposition to Obamacare from the get-go, McConnell is the victim of a series of accusations, most notably by the Senate Conservatives Fund, of appeasement and surrender on the health care law. And he has been forced to fight back, with his campaign calling the attacks against him "profoundly stupid."
Erick Erickson, the editor of RedState, explained the thinking behind the scorched-earth activism in a blog post Monday. "We must deny them the opportunity to fix the law itself," he wrote. "Let the American people see big government in all its glory. Then offer a repeal."
Ornstein summed it up this way: "These are the talking points and if you don't apply them, then you're a traitor." He confessed that he's "never seen anything like that before. I mean, you can certainly find party litmus tests," he said, mentioning support for abortion rights and opposition to the Vietnam war for Democrats in the 1970s. "But this has been taken to a level that I think is almost bizarre."