All year we've watched the running tally of House Republican votes to repeal, defund and dismantle Obamacare climb -- 40, 41, 42 -- to one and only one effect. Not to actually harm the Affordable Care Act but to exploit and intensify conservative outrage, by misleading GOP base voters about the likelihood and necessity of ending it.
It's no surprise that those numbers have ticked up more rapidly in the past several weeks. Obamacare's just days away from opening for business, and once that happens, repealing it or defunding it will entail taking health insurance benefits away from Americans. It becomes a much harder fight.
It's also why I imagine that quite soon -- certainly after the first of the year, when ACA-approved insurance actually kicks in -- the GOP will lose its appetite for more and more and more doomed repeal votes.
But Republicans are setting themselves up to tumble into a discontinuity of their own creation. The surge of anti-Obamacare legislative antics has created a feedback loop between Republicans and GOP base voters, where each vote increases the right's insistence on defeating the law, which in turn creates more pressure on Republicans to take radical steps to defund or delay or repeal it. But unless they plan on trying to take away people's insurance in an election year, they'll have to dial back their extreme anti-Obamacare procedural tactics at the moment the right's insistence on keeping up the fight is most pitched.
From the vantage point of September 2013, it looks like Obamacare will dominate the politics of 2014, but I think that's a premature judgment. At least some Republicans will feel pressure to change their views about the law -- or at least their view that it should be repealed -- next year. Certainly after primary season is behind them. That'll be an awkward turn for them to take.
Which might just present Democrats an opportunity.
If you've enjoyed the mess the right's Obamacare obsession has created for the Republican Party over the past few weeks, part of you might be sad that this fall's budget fights will soon come to an end. But Democrats can keep picking at the scab well into next year if they choose.
If Obamacare becomes the disaster Republicans claim it already is, then Democrats will suffer politically, for obvious reasons, no matter what. But if it goes pretty well -- if several million people enroll in the exchanges, including a few million young people, and millions more enter Medicaid, it will create a real liability for the GOP. That's a real constituency. It will include Republicans and independents, and also Democrats who normally don't show up at the polls during midterm elections, but will have a real reason to vote if their benefits are on the line; if they think it's a matter between keeping their new insurance or returning to the risk and uncertainty of lacking coverage.
If that's the case, Republicans might suddenly go quiet about Obamacare, or at least try to.
That's when Democrats should consider pursuing real efforts to improve the law, and at the same time hold test votes to repeal it. The notion of Harry Reid introducing an Obamacare repeal bill might seem strange, particularly in the current environment, and particularly when so many Democrats are facing tough races this cycle. But unless the rollout is genuinely disastrous the politics of Obamacare could shift very rapidly.
Six months from now the right's anti-Obamacare single-mindedness could easily become a real liability. Supporting repeal won't pay the same political dividends, and will begin to raise real questions. Right now, conservatives like National Review's Jonah Goldberg think it's pretty great to point and laugh at the painful consequences of unintentional drafting errors in the Affordable Care Act but to oppose fixing them -- easy fixes -- because they want people to suffer to further dubious political and ideological ends. If Republicans in Congress and in red states keep that up next year, it'll no longer be an abstraction. People will get angry. And more to the point, we might even start seeing a little progress toward improving the law.
That's the best-case scenario, but I wouldn't write it off just yet.