R.I.P. Obamacare repeal movement: Crusade is officially dead

Without anyone realizing, all mainstream efforts to kill the health law have disappeared. Here's what it all means

Published December 2, 2013 12:45PM (EST)

  (AP/Alex Brandon)
(AP/Alex Brandon)

Back in July, long before we knew just how turbulent the rollout of the Affordable Care Act would be, and even longer before we knew just how committed Republicans were to the idea that Congress shouldn't boot people out of health insurance, I argued that even modest enrollment would herald the end of the GOP's campaign to repeal Obamacare. That upon launch, but really after January 1, a vote to repeal the law would transform from an abstraction into an attempt to snatch health insurance away from as many as several million people.

That's a bad vote to take. So I reasoned that big, blunt efforts to destroy Obamacare -- repeal, defund, delay -- would cease altogether, and would give way at first to subtler ploys to damage the law, politicking, and then to fights within the conservative tent over how to reckon with a post-Obamacare reality in which all Americans expect reliable access to the health care system.

Well, the rollout has been an embarrassing debacle. First month enrollment figures were so weak that if the law had disappeared on November 1, the vast majority of uninsured people would have never really experienced what was being taken away from them.

Despite all that, the repeal campaign is burning itself out anyhow. And if Healthcare.gov holds up today and through the end of the year, it'll be dead. You wouldn't notice that, if your main point of contact with the right is on Twitter or mass emails from fringe conservative pressure groups.

But among elected Republicans, and particularly GOP leaders, "repeal" has become a purely rhetorical posture. Since the end of the government shutdown fight, House Republicans have taken zero repeal, defund, or delay votes. The one bill it has passed -- the Keep Your Health Plan Act -- wasn't intended to be constructive. It was a poison pill. But it was also a strategic blunder, and as a policy proposal it fell far, far short of past attempts to gut the law.

Now that it's December, Republicans are facing accelerating enrollment across the country and a thinning calendar. Healthcare.gov is much improved and still improving, and the House is set to adjourn on December 13 for the remainder of the year. When it returns, the hundreds of thousands of people who've already successfully enrolled will actually be insured, and their ranks will be swelling.

I think Republican leaders will be extremely reluctant to hold votes to nakedly destroy the law, even if conservative hardliners try to use upcoming budget deadlines to replay the failed defund strategy.

Indeed, repeal is already an afterthought -- a pose -- in the Republican leadership's actual playbook for attacking Obamacare in the weeks ahead. The manual boasts of past efforts to repeal or gut the law, but outlines a forward-looking strategy of politicking it at the margin.

In the months ahead Republicans will squeeze every drop of political juice they can out of every Obamacare failure and hardship they can unearth or spin into existence. But the goal won't be repeal. It will be to channel the right's Obamacare obsession into voter turnout in 2014 -- at which point millions of people will be insured and the law will be unrepealable.

I think the hopelessness of the repeal campaign -- the absence of a viable legislative vehicle, the turning tide of Healthcare.gov, the initiation of insurance benefits -- is becoming clear to elected Republicans, and its dying embers will be fully extinguished by early next year.

Take Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga, who's running against other conservatives in a primary to replace retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss. Normally the exigencies of GOP primaries force Republicans to stake out ludicrous, fantastical positions, particularly on an issue like Obamacare. But last week he surprised the political world by saying the GOP's heighten-the-contradictions approach to the law isn't responsible.

"If you get a lot of letters that say, 'Hey, back off, it works. I have a special needs child and here's why its been good for me,' we want to listen to that," Kingston told a conservative radio station in Georgia last Monday.

"There’s some criticism, 'Well, are you helping improve this law when you make that change? And should we be doing that?'" he said. "A lot of conservatives say, 'Nah, let’s just step back and let this thing fall to pieces on its own.' But I don’t think that’s always the responsible thing to do. I think we need to be looking for things that improve healthcare overall for all of us. And if there was something in Obamacare [that's good] we need to know about it."

By Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at bbeutler@salon.com and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

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Affordable Care Act Barack Obama Gop Jack Kingston Obamacare Repeal Saxby Chambliss The Right