Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas) and his allies are right about Obamacare. They’re right that it’s bad for our economic prospects, our health care, and the relationship between our citizens and the federal government. They’re right to make the case against it — as Senator Cruz just did for 21 hours, in a magnificent performance that makes us glad to have backed his primary campaign. They’re right, finally, that Republicans need a strategy for repealing it. And they’re right that Republican leaders have not come up with one.
We wish we could say that Cruz and his allies have devised a workable strategy of their own. Instead, they want Republicans to refuse to vote for any legislation to fund the government unless it includes language denying funds to Obamacare. And if Democrats reject that condition and the government shuts down, Republicans should blame them for the shutdown and make the case against Obamacare until the Democrats relent. The history of the shutdowns of 1995–96 — the real history, that is, not the revisionist version that some advocates of this strategy have persuaded themselves to believe — suggests that this plan is unlikely to work. It could even help President Obama, whose numbers have been falling all year, to make a comeback that will give a lift to his entire agenda.
Senator Cruz warns that once Obamacare’s subsidies start flowing, the program will be impossible to dislodge. This seems to us too pessimistic. The Congressional Budget Office suggests that 2 percent of the public will be getting subsidies in 2014. Many of them will still be paying more. And even those who come out ahead won’t see the subsidy themselves, since it goes to their insurer. Meanwhile, we can expect many of the larger number of people who encounter higher premiums, or a reduced choice of doctors, or involuntary movement to part-time work, to blame Obamacare.
It will certainly be hard to repeal Obamacare. Getting it passed took decades for the Democrats, along with control of the White House and both houses of Congress. Opponents of the law are going to have to win some elections to undo their work.
They also need to have a realistic sense of public opinion. More Americans oppose Obamacare than support it, and those numbers have been moving in the right direction since the law passed. But the polls on repealing the law in full are less consistent, and often show only minority support for the conservative position. Part of the explanation is surely status quo bias and wishful thinking: People who have not looked into the issue in detail may be under the illusion that the law can be “fixed,” when in fact its flaws are inherent in its basic structure. Too-low support for repeal almost certainly also reflects the public’s concern about the problems that Obamacare is supposed to address, and its lack of confidence that opponents of the law have better solutions to them.
The defunders make an excellent point when they say that Republicans should work to change public opinion and not just accept it, even if a shutdown is not the best context in which to try. The good news is that we are pushing on an open door: People are already predisposed against Obamacare. Republicans need to make it clear that there are better ideas on how to put health insurance within reach of more people, and how to care for people whose pre-existing conditions lock them out of the market. Individual Republicans — Representative Paul Ryan (Wis.), Senator Tom Coburn (Okla.), and others — have advocated such solutions, but the congressional party as a whole has ignored them. The good news is that the 175 House conservatives in the Republican Study Committee, just last week, proposed a replacement for Obamacare that makes real progress on this front. The members of the RSC — who are, like other conservatives, divided over the shutdown strategy — are showing their fellow Republicans some of what they must do once it fails.