Obamacare politics transformed: Burden of proof now falls on the doomsayers

This week's Obamacare milestone schooled the haters and deniers -- and that's a good thing for the law and nation

Published April 3, 2014 5:08PM (EDT)

Eric Cantor, Ted Cruz, Michele Bachmann                                            (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Kevin Lamarque/AP/Paul Sancya)
Eric Cantor, Ted Cruz, Michele Bachmann (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Kevin Lamarque/AP/Paul Sancya)

Seven million has never been, and was never intended to be, the point at which a threshold effect would render Obamacare an unqualified success. Likewise, it was never the case that Obamacare would have collapsed with 6,999,999 or fewer enrollees. Seven million was a reasonable estimate of first-year enrollment, and a large enough number to stabilize the law in most states, if not all of them. It was a benchmark the administration adopted then distanced itself from then re-embraced, and thus holds totemic significance among the ACA's supporters and detractors alike.

That's why when enrollment cleared 7 million, its supporters breathed a sigh of relief and (some of) its detractors were forced to acknowledge that the law is now too deeply rooted to repeal outright. And that's all fair enough.

But for me -- and I assume I speak for more than just myself here -- this week's milestone was less noteworthy for its substantive implications than for the effect it will have on legislative and political debates over the law.

Seven million is important not because it completely vindicates the law or eliminates the need to scrutinize its functioning and consequences -- it doesn't -- but because it discredits opportunists who declared the law mortally wounded, either to build an irresistible political narrative, or in the hope that prophesying doom would make actual doom more likely.

Jonathan Cohn collected some of the most memorable predictions here. And here, E.J. Dionne asks whether the media will now take a more skeptical view of negative Obamacare predictions.

I'm not sure what the answer to that question is, but I strongly suspect this week's news will drain the excess and the mirth out of those predictions. Chastened conservatives will temper themselves. Republicans remain obsessed with how many enrollees ultimately pay their premiums (spoiler: less than 100 percent; more than they hope). But only charlatans and hardened ideologues will now claim that Obamacare is destined to collapse under its own weight. Conservatives and GOP political operatives will continue to call the law a #trainwreck, but I suspect they'll also face tougher questions about the party's years-long obsession with repealing it. Some of them might even disown repeal altogether. Which means the fight over Obamacare will become more centered and less blinkered.

The burden of proof now falls on the doomsayers and Manichaeans, and that changes the political atmosphere surrounding the law in a positive way.

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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