Is This The Last Convention Where The GOP Promises Obamacare Repeal?

UNITED STATES - JUNE 28: Opponents of the Affordable Care Act rally before the Supreme announces its decision about the constitutionality of the President's efforts on health care reform. (Photo by Chris Maddaloni/CQ... UNITED STATES - JUNE 28: Opponents of the Affordable Care Act rally before the Supreme announces its decision about the constitutionality of the President's efforts on health care reform. (Photo by Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call via AP Images) MORE LESS
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CLEVELAND — What happens when a die-hard, uncompromising party position is a non-issue for the candidate topping the ticket? How Republicans are treating Obamacare at the GOP convention suggests, whether Donald Trump wins or not, repeal-fever might be close to breaking.

GOP antipathy towards the Affordable Care Act has been a driving party issue in the three federal elections since its passage. But this year, condemning it is not dominating primetime convention program, or lending itself to election year-slogans. Instead, discussion of the issue was relegated to hotel conference rooms and restaurant basements where lawmakers mingled with lobbyists and policy folks gave them their take.

For conservatives who have long sought the repeal of the dreaded Obamacare, the challenge was how to keep the issue as part of the convention conversation when presumptive nominee has shown little interest in the topic.

On one hand, you had Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX), chairman of the all powerful Ways and Means Committee, touting House Republicans’ recently released ACA alternative outline at a Bloomberg breakfast with some hospital executives. On the other, you had former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R), who served as Health and Human Services secretary under the George W. Bush, cautioning that a full-on Obamacare repeal won’t ever happen and it’s time to focus on improving it instead.

And in the middle were all the right-leaning health care policy wonks who have for years urged the Republican Party to adopt a more proactive approach to talking about health care, instead of just relying on the knee-jerk cries of “Repeal!” At the moment, they have a party leader who has not made Obamacare a central issue and has been fuzzy on policy specifics.

“We are in a phase of the conversation now that we are trying to do our best to imagine what a Trump administration might look like when in reality, none of us really knows,” Lanhee Chen, a Hoover Institution fellow who served as Mitt Romney’s policy director in 2012, said at a panel Tuesday sponsored by RealClearPolitics.

Little has changed in Republicans’ Obamacare posturing between Romney’s run and the 2016 cycle: support of repeal is still a litmus test, replacement ideas are vague and, indeed, the 2016 GOP party platform says the law must be done away with.

“Is this focus on repeal keeping Republican from doing practical legislation on health care and improving Obamacare?” said Ramesh Ponnuru, a health care expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, during the RealClearPolitics panel. “There’s a real basic problem which is, Republicans on health care, as on lot of issues, have not known what they want and they have been scandalously slow with coming up with an outline of an alternative to Obamacare that they want.”

At least some Republicans are now at least willing to admit the ACA is here to stay, and Republicans were better off focusing on fixing it.

“I think it’s got to be modified,” Thompson said at the RealClearPolitics event. “I do not believe that my political party is going to be able to put together a complete repeal. And I don’t think it should be.”

But don’t tell that to Chairman Brady, who with House Speaker Paul Ryan and a task force of other House GOPers, renewed their promise to repeal Obamacare as soon as Republican is in the White House via an agenda paper released last month.

“A lot of the oxygen is getting sucked up by the presidential,” Brady told TPM after the Bloomberg event. “But we think, this isn’t just a contest — shouldn’t be just a contest — of personalities. It should be a contest of ideas, such as how do you provide and deliver different health care than the Affordable Care Act.”

Some Republicans suggested that the continued-Obamacare-must-go posturing was just a reality of the election atmosphere.

“It’s not just Trump running. It’s all the congressional candidates running, too,” Chen told TPM. “And if you’re a Republican in a swing state and you’re running for the Senate, yes, you need to realize that there are bigger constituencies but you need to remember that there’s a Republican constituency that you need to get the support from to win the election.”

He said he could see a President Trump, with sizable Republican majorities in the House and Senate, in fact repealing a lot of Obamacare.

“What would give me more comfort in the next few months was if he were to start to say, here’s some serious ideas I have and begin to talk a little bit more about that. But part of this is, we’ve seen enough of Donald Trump to know how he likes to comport himself and that’s just very troubling to me,” Chen told TPM.

Thompson, meanwhile, went further to suggest that Trump would be better positioned than Clinton to enact the improvements to Obamacare. He said some congressional Republicans still promising repeal would come around to this, too.

“They’re going to keep talking about full repeal, but the truth of the matter is, once it gets beyond the election, they are going to have to make the modifications,” Thompson told TPM in a brief interview after the event. “The Affordable Care Act had got lots of problems, but there are some good parts to it and most Republicans will recognize good parts.”

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