Politics & Policy

The Obamacare Blame Game

The GOP isn’t responsible for the law’s bad start.

The Affordable Care Act — a.k.a. Obamacare — is off to a very rocky start, and according to the law’s biggest defenders, the blame falls squarely at the feet of Republicans.

It’s an odd claim. Republicans did not write the law. They did not support the law. And they are not in charge of implementing it. Yet, it’s got to be the GOP’s fault, right?

#ad#Now it is true that Republicans have been trying very hard to kill the law. The GOP-controlled House has voted 40 times to repeal it. Conservative activists dedicated to repeal have refused to shut up and lie down. Some Republican governors have declined to expand Medicaid. Some Republican senators have leaned on outside groups, such as the NFL, not to help promote the law. And some ambitious Republicans want to use the upcoming budget and debt-ceiling negotiations to force Democrats into defunding Obamacare.

Let’s go through each. Trying to repeal a law you didn’t vote for and think will be bad for the country is entirely legitimate. Sometimes, it’s morally compulsory. One needn’t cite the fugitive-slave law to demonstrate this fact. In a mid-presidency conversion, Barack Obama decided that he would do whatever he could to nullify the Defense of Marriage Act. In 1989, after a backlash from seniors, Congress repealed a Medicare-reform law that hadn’t worked as planned.

There’s also something just plain weird about criticizing politicians for trying to get rid of a law that is, has been, and continues to be unpopular with Americans. If Obamacare were wildly popular, the demonization of Republicans as out of touch and radical would have a bit more plausibility.

Also, the fact that activists won’t give up may be annoying to supporters of the law, but just talk to any one of them and they’ll be the first to tell you that so far they’ve failed utterly. Similarly, asking the NFL to stay out of a bitter political controversy may be unseemly, but such actions haven’t done anything to stop Obamacare. Indeed, the GOP governors who’ve declined to sign up for Medicaid expansion aren’t obstructing the law; they’re exercising their discretion under the law.

In fact, the only person openly defying Obamacare is Obama himself. His Department of Health and Human Services declared it would delay the implementation of the business mandate, despite the fact that nothing in the law empowers it to do so.

And that’s just the most egregious part. The administration has been issuing thousands of waivers — including to favored constituencies — exempting various parties (such as congressional staffers) from complying with the law because it turns out Obamacare can’t work as written. That conclusion isn’t mine; it’s the administration’s. That’s why, for instance, HHS and the IRS won’t bother with verifying whether applicants for insurance subsidies are eligible under the law.

In short, Republicans are on the right side of the argument in every particular, save one: the effort to force the Democrats to defund Obamacare by threatening a debt crisis or government shutdown. The Democrats will never agree to such a demand, and the resulting crisis would surely be blamed on Republicans.

There is a bizarre irony at work here. Both the Right and the Left are convinced Obamacare will eventually become popular if implemented. Conservatives fear the “ratchet effect,” a term coined by the great libertarian economic historian Robert Higgs. Once government expands, goes the theory, reversing that expansion is nearly impossible. Liberals have their own version. They point out that once Americans get an entitlement — Social Security, Medicare, etc. — they never want to lose it. They hope that if they can just get Americans hooked on the goodies in Obamacare, they’ll overlook all the flaws.

There’s a lot of truth here, to be sure. But it’s not an iron law, either. Sometimes, bad laws get fixed. It happened with Medicare in 1989 and welfare reform in 1995. Many of the boneheaded laws of the early New Deal were scrapped as well.

Republicans should have a little more confidence in their own arguments. If you believe that Obamacare can’t work, you should expect that it won’t. Forcing a debt crisis or government shutdown won’t kill Obamacare, but it will give Democrats a lifeline heading into the 2014 elections, which could have the perverse effect of delaying the day Republicans have the political clout to actually succeed in repealing this unworkable and unpopular law.

— Jonah Goldberg is the author of The Tyranny of Clichés, now on sale in paperback. You can write to him by e-mail at goldbergcolumn@gmail.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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