How The GOP Base Keeps Its Leaders In Line On Obamacare

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On Friday, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the 4th-ranked House Republican, gave an interview to her home-state paper in which she reportedly conceded that Obamacare was unlikely to be repealed.

“We need to look at reforming the exchanges,” she told the Spokesman-Review.

The interview came after Obamacare surpassed its initial sign-up goals, prompting conservative experts to conclude that repeal was no longer viable.

Her remarks lit up the conservative blogosphere, earning a top banner headline on the well-trafficked, which remained there over the weekend, and drawing two scathing blog posts at, the website of conservative activist and Fox News contributor Erick Erickson.

Then her office tamed her remarks. In a statement to TPM on Sunday night, McMorris Rodgers’ spokesman highlighted her repeated votes to repeal Obamacare and framed her call for reforming the law as an effort to protect Americans from it.

“As was made abundantly clear in the interview, the Congresswoman believes Obamacare’s government-centered, one-size fits all approach is not working, and will never work on multiple fronts, which is why she has voted numerous times to repeal it and will continue to work to repeal it at every opportunity,” said Nate Hodson, her spokesman. “Until the President and Democrats in Congress join Republicans in fully repealing this unworkable law, her mission is to continue protecting as many Americans as possible from its harmful effects until it is dismantled and replaced with needed reforms focused on patient-centered health care.”

McMorris Rodgers’ experience isn’t unique — in fact, it’s common for Republicans who have offered any hint of accommodation for the health care law. The sequence typically goes like this: a Republican makes an overture toward a goal other than full repeal, the right-wing base (and perhaps the lawmaker’s GOP opponents) light up in fury and the Republican backtracks — perhaps overcompensates — for the sin.

Last week Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) told constituents that full repeal “isn’t the answer,” at least without an alternative. He added: “The challenge is that Obamacare is the law of the land. It is there and it has driven all types of changes in our health care delivery system. You can’t recreate an insurance market overnight.” The remarks received attention in national media.

On Monday, his spokesman, Michael Steel, suggested Boehner was merely reaffirming the GOP’s repeal-and-replace position. “It is simply a reiteration that we need to repeal it, and also pass patient-centered reforms,” Steel said in an email. “No one should pretend that the pre-ObamaCare situation was good or that we can simply go back to it.”

A similar phenomenon is taking place is Senate Republican primaries, too.

Last month the GOP establishment’s preferred Senate candidate in North Carolina, Thom Tillis, was caught on tape saying Obamacare was “a great idea that can’t be paid for.” The comments immediately sparked a backlash — both from conservatives and his GOP opponent, Greg Brannon — and Tillis walked them back and insisted on his anti-Obamacare bona fides.

“When Washington doesn’t pay for an idea, it’s a bad idea, no matter what promises they include,” Jordan Shaw, his campaign manager, told TPM at the time. “That’s what he meant by his comments in their entirety and context, and it is obvious when reading the full comment and judging Speaker Tillis’ track record of opposition to Obamacare.” Tillis is still trying to live down the comments, which were used in an ad by Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) that omitted a key part of his quote (the “can’t be paid for” part) in an apparent attempt to undermine Tillis in the GOP primary.

Last fall Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), running for Senate, was touting his bill to roll back some of the law’s regulations on businesses when he said he doesn’t think it’s “responsible” to simply let it collapse. “And if there is something in Obamacare, we need to know about it,” Kingston told a local radio station at the time. The right-wing backlash was brutal, accusing him of surrender and prompting his opponent, Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA), to call into question his anti-Obamacare credentials.

Kingston, too, is still trying to live down his comments. Earlier this month he released an ad featuring a faux call and voicemail from President Barack Obama demanding he “back off Obamacare” and declaring that “I do not want you in the Senate.”

The conservative base has been remarkably effective at keeping Republicans in line against Obamacare. But the politics have changed as the law — for all its problems and challenges — exhibits clear signs of success. Evolving politically will be a challenge for Republicans as long as their base remains determined to punish them for being willing to accommodate the law.

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