Fool Me You Can’t Get Fooled Again

Ten weeks into President Obama’s second term and Republicans are back to convincing themselves they can repeal Obamacare.

Actually, that’s probably overstating things a little. I think most Republicans get that 2012 was their lone shot at true repeal and they missed it. Since the election, Mitt Romney’s admitted that in a national election, the Affordable Care Act turned out to be a political asset to Obama. And even if Republicans manage to reclaim the Senate in 2014 and then the White House in 2016, the public will have benefited from the law for two years, and rescinding those benefits without having something better to offer in exchange will be a big loser.But some Republicans claim to believe that Romney’s history with universal health care created a kind of false or premature detente on the campaign trail last year. National Journal’s look at Mitch McConnell’s ongoing obsession with Obamacare suggests Republicans will try to revive the health care law as a political liability for Democrats in 2014. And if it helps Republicans reclaim the Senate in the midterms, then its easy to imagine them continuing to undermine the law and making it an issue again two years later.

It’s hard to disentangle bluster from genuine conviction here. Republicans have severe member and coalition management problems right now. McConnell himself is in cycle and trying to fend off a primary challenger. In a moment of apparent candor after the election, John Boehner essentially called Obamacare a settled issue, and the right erupted. So Republican leaders more or less have to say these things.

Still, I think it would be an error for Democrats to identify these outbursts solely as manifestations of internal Republican political problems. It’s easy to point and mock and be self-satisfied, knowing that Republicans are tilting at windmills and making mistakes of their own as they contend with the outcome of the election. But as far as the ACA itself is concerned, 2011 and 2012 were simple — easy-to-implement benefits, no contentious, broad-based liabilities. All dessert, no veggies.

The next two years will be much, much harder. And despite the election results, Republicans at all levels will actually have more opportunities to muck up implementation, and mislead the public about its successes and failures.

Substantively, there isn’t much Democrats can do except push and push and do the best they can with the resources they have. Republicans will make it hard — probably impossible — for the administration to wring any more implementation money out of Congress. When easy-to-fix technical challenges arise, Congress won’t act, because Republicans will want them to fester. So working around those challenges will be key.

But the rest is basically public relations. After the law passed, Dems were battered and shellshocked and unable to publicly defend the law. I don’t think I need to belabor the consequences of that silence. Now they’re not so scared. But if 2012 has lulled them into complacency, then a similar silence will invite the same dynamic, just as the laws biggest and toughest-to-execute components roll out.