As no one has been reticent about pointing out, last night’s debate was long — Peter Jackson-in-Middle-Earth, Peter O’Toole-in-deep-eye-shadow long. And while we heard plenty that was instructive (and plenty that was not; sorry, Governor Huckabee, your wife is decidedly not going on the currency), we heard virtually nothing about . . . Obamacare. Beyond a few brief in media res mentions from candidates, a repeal line in Cruz’s closing address, and an allusion or two (e.g., the question about John Roberts), the president’s signature piece of legislation was a non-issue.
Which makes one wonder: Is it a non-issue? CNN was looking for knife fights, and Hugh Hewitt’s bent is foreign policy (not that he got to weigh in much). So perhaps this simply was a setting unfriendly to the topic. But opposition to Obamacare was the focal point of the Tea Party, which expanded it into a struggle of principle: Will we permit this law to fundamentally reorder the relationship between citizen and State? It was a pivotal topic in 2012 (Romneycare, “Obamneycare,” etc.). It was crucial in helping Republicans recapture the Senate in 2014. And three hours is a long time.
I suspect that the anti-Obamacare fervor is in a period of quiescence. We have now seen Obamacare implemented sans “death spiral.” The website works. The Supreme Court has handed the Obama administration two affirmative Supreme Court decisions. And the president has made sure to do much in the interim — immigration executive actions and Iran deals, for example — to draw fire away from his healthcare law. Conservative heads have a limited supply of steam.
But that quiescence should not lead to indifference. Sure, besides Trump, all of the candidates are Obamacare opponents (set aside Kasich’s Medicare expansion). But, as James Capretta wrote after last month’s debate, opposing the law is not enough. It’s far from clear that the law could be repealed, or that, if it were, the effort would be worth the significant political capital. And even so, that does not address the more important question: What then?
A Republican president, with a Republican Congress, could reform the Affordable Care Act effectively out of existence. Choosing the leader best suited to that task, among others, is important. GOP voters should not lose sight of this long game.