By Bill Schneider
After the French Revolution, the statesman and diplomat Talleyrand said of the Bourbon kings, "They learned nothing and they forgot nothing." The same might be said of congressional Republicans after their disastrous government shutdown adventure.
Obamacare survives. That itself is something of a miracle. Look at how many near-death experiences it has been through. The loss of Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) in 2009 deprived Democrats of the majority they needed to end a Senate filibuster. They managed to circumvent the filibuster by applying a controversial rule that allowed the bill to pass with a simple majority.
Republicans won control of the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm election by promising to repeal Obamacare. The House has now voted 46 times — 46 times! — to repeal Obamacare, only to see the votes ignored by the Democratic Senate.
In 2012, the Affordable Care Act was upheld by the Supreme Court by a vote of five-to-four — but only after Chief Justice John Roberts defined healthcare not as a constitutional right, but as a benefit that can be taken away at any time. The court described the Affordable Care Act as a decision "entrusted to our nation's elected leaders, who can be thrown out of office if the people disagree with them."
This month, Republicans shut down the federal government rather than pass a budget that included funding for Obamacare. The result? A wave of public anger over Republican tactics, plus damage to the economy. Meanwhile, Obamacare is still the law.
So what have Republicans learned? Nothing. "We fought the fight. We didn't win," Speaker John Boehner (R-Oh.) said. "We lived to fight another day."
For Republicans, opposition to Obamacare has become a defining issue, like antiwar sentiment was for Democrats during the war in Iraq. Of course, people were being killed in Iraq. But look at what Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) said about Obamacare: "Let's repeal this failure before it literally kills women, kills children, kills senior citizens."
Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said the message to seniors is, "You're going to die sooner. When you restrict the ability of primary caregivers in this country to do what is best for their senior patients, what you're doing is limiting their life expectancy."
The antiwar movement had an explicit and feasible objective: End the war. President Barack Obama got elected on a promise to do just that. And he did.
Do Republicans have any reasonable prospect of ending Obamacare? They think so — even after all those near-death experiences. They take hope from all the problems this month with the rollout of the Healthcare.gov website.
Representative Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, put it this way to the New York Times: "If the website glitches are just the tip of the iceberg, it's only a matter of time before the law sinks and takes with it those Democrats who wrote it, voted for it and are proud of it."
What Republicans are trying to do is create a wave of public anger against Obamacare that will sweep the GOP into office, starting with next year's midterm election. They want 2014 to be the reverse of 2006. In 2006, a wave of public anger over the war in Iraq swept Republicans out of power in Congress, presaged Obama's presidential election win two years later — and ended the war. In 2014, Republicans expect a wave of public anger over Obamacare to sweep Democrats out of power in Congress, presage the election of a Republican President in 2016 — and end Obamacare.
Right now, Republicans are getting their wave of public anger, but it's aimed largely at them. Public support for Obamacare has actually been increasing in the post-shutdown polls.
Yes, there are serious problems with the federal website, but they don't affect most Americans. A majority of people still get health insurance from their employers, and another third get it from the government (through Medicare and Medicaid). This will not change, though Republicans warn that employers may try to avoid paying healthcare premiums by reducing workers' hours. And 40 percent of the uninsured live in states like California, which have their own healthcare exchanges — that have been working pretty well.
Nonetheless, public awareness of problems with the federal website has been growing. Time magazine reports that 46 percent of Americans believe the exchanges are working "not too well" or "not well at all." The administration has hired a new contractor who promises to have the federal website fixed by the end of November.
Nervous Democrats also have been pressuring the Obama administration to extend the penalty-free deadline for enrollment. The administration has now agreed to extend it for six weeks, until the end of March. Some Democrats are calling for a yearlong extension. They are clearly worried about the November 2014 midterm.
Meanwhile, Republicans are doing everything they can to publicize the problems and discourage people from signing up. The administration is aiming to have seven million people signed up by the end of 2014. The Obama administration estimates that 700,000 people have applied for private insurance plans using the federal and state exchanges, although many of them have enrolled in Medicaid, which is a public program. Republicans have started their own website where frustrated applicants can report problems with Obamacare.
Republicans in Congress have shifted strategies from trying to kill Obamacare outright to investigating problems with the new law. Does anyone really think those investigations are aimed at saving or improving the law? More likely, they are aimed at driving down public confidence.
The GOP's political strategy here is pretty simple: Do everything possible to discourage young and healthy people from signing up for Obamacare. If the new insurance plans are dominated by the old and the sick — people who are desperate to get coverage — then insurance premiums will skyrocket. And a wave of public anger is certain to follow.
There is a name for such a strategy. It's called sabotage.