Opinion

Michael A. Cohen

Republicans never wanted to kill Obamacare

Has there even been a major piece of legislation that has dodged more bullets than Obamacare?

Back in 2009, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid miraculously kept 60 Democrats and Independents together to pass the bill in the face of unstinting Republican opposition.

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After Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts won a special Senate election in early 2010, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi somehow corraled enough congressional Democrats to pass the Senate version of the bill.

In 2012, Obamacare survived a Supreme Court challenge to the law by one vote. Three years after that, it survived another high court challenge.

Now this week, with Republicans in control of both houses of Congress and the White House — and fanatically committed to repeal — Obamacare again has withstood the onslaught.

There’s an important lesson here: it’s awfully hard to take away government benefits from people once they’ve received them. For all of the GOP’s talk about hatred of big government, the continued, unlikely survival of Obamacare is a tribute to the American people’s love of government entitlements.

For Republicans, repealing Obamacare has always been a talking point and not much else. With little expectation that they would have the legislative opportunity to overturn the law, the GOP railed against the bill as if it was the devil itself. They repeatedly lied to their supporters about the bill. They claimed that it cost people care when it hadn’t. They said it increased health care costs when it didn’t. And they repeatedly said that repealing it would make American health care better, when it wouldn’t.

Trump on healthcare vote withdrawal: “Obamacare is exploding.”

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Republicans never wanted to kill Obamacare. Rather they wanted their supporters to believe they would. Even when given the chance to kill the law in 2012, Chief Justice John Roberts — a long-time Republican — blinked. For seven years they peddled their illusory take on Obamacare.

Then a funny thing happened last November: Republicans took over Washington. Now they had the chance to do away with Obamcare.

They could have partially repealed it through the budget reconciliation process. But that would create a disaster in the individual health care market — and Republicans wanted no part of that. So House Republicans hastily crafted a replacement bill to combine with repeal — something they’d failed to come up with in the previous seven years.

The bill they introduced was defined by extraordinary heartlessness that would have stripped coverage away from 24 million people. Amazingly, it wasn’t quite cruel enough for members of the House Freedom Caucus, who demanded even more malice in return for their votes. But in doing so, the Republican leadership alienated the few remaining moderates in the party who feared an electoral backlash. And so once again, the repeal effort died.

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Indeed, the GOP’s repeated failure to repeal Obamacare is a great reminder that their anti-government rhetoric is just that — empty talk. When push comes to shove Republicans are simply unwilling and unable to walk the walk. If anything, the opposite has regularly occurred.

Richard Nixon greatly expanded the regulatory state. Ronald Reagan preserved Social Security for the long haul, raised taxes and didn’t eliminate one major government program. George W. Bush expanded government entitlements and increased the size of the federal government. Once in office Republicans came to understand that the political costs of following through on their anti-government talk was simply too high.

But it’s not just the GOP’s hypocrisy that’s been exposed. Perhaps the most interesting part of this debate was that Obamacare, which for years had been the red-headed stepchild of legislative accomplishments … suddenly became quite popular. Voters who had long benefited from the law — and who had at the same time echoed the GOP’s anti-government talking points - began to realize that getting rid of Obamacare might boomerang against them. Rather than cheer Republicans on, they recoiled at the potential consequences of repeal.

There’s always been a deep hypocrisy at the heart of anti-government attitudes in this country. Railing against government spending in the abstract is a lot easier than actually doing something concrete about it. For years polls have shown that Americans think government spending should be reduced but healthy majorities always oppose any cuts to specific programs – from Social Security and Medicare to the Pentagon, education and anti-poverty programs.

We’ve known all this for years and yet somehow the fundamental emptiness of attacks on big government is regularly treated as though it is serious and true. The repeated failure of Republicans to repeal Obamacare and the sudden love among Americans for the law — just as it was in danger of being taken away — should once and for all end this fiction.

Americans love big government and they always will.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.
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