Last gasps of a dying movement: Obamacare obstructionists' self-created trap

What happens when your whole focus was on killing a program millions of Americans now need? We're about to find out

Published April 18, 2014 3:26PM (EDT)

Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell                              (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Kevin McCarthy doesn’t have the best timing. The House majority whip released what he hoped would be the foundational document of Obamacare truthers, “Debunking Obamacare’s 7 million enrollees ‘success’ story,” the same day the White House announced that, in fact, 8.03 million Americans had enrolled in the insurance exchanges. Republicans will no doubt try to debunk the higher figure the same way, but the more we learn about who’s been covered under the Affordable Care Act, the harder it will be. It is, overwhelmingly, a success story.

I said the same thing back when the number was 7 million: Imagine how many more people might have been covered if shrill Republicans hadn’t made repealing and obstructing the ACA their top priority. The news that 35 percent of enrollees are under 35 is particularly heartening: it means many young people ignored the campaign to tell them not to sign up – remember that creepy Uncle Sam “doctor” and reports of cool campus keg parties? Yes, the president had Zach Galifianakis and Bradley Cooper – damn you, Bradley Cooper! Greg Gutfeld is still so angry at you – but imagine where we’d be without an organized national campaign to scare people out of signing up.

Obama: Eight Million Enrolled Under Affordable Care Act

The campaign to discredit the act will continue. McCarthy’s dumb document lists five new metrics for measuring success, including how many enrollees have actually paid, and how many didn’t have insurance before. Those are old talking points, but they’ve added a new one – how many received subsidies -- which is ugly in several ways. Republicans will use a high rate of subsidies, if that’s the case, to negate the act’s success, when in fact the subsidies were always key to it: You can’t have an individual mandate to purchase private insurance without making some provision to help those who can’t afford it. Affordability is why most didn’t have it in the first place.

But McCarthy also tacks on an ugly parenthetical, asking “how many received a subsidy (raising concerns about fraud).” Brian Beutler at the New Republic calls this an effort to “welfarize Obamacare,” to stigmatize it and also make it subject to the same hysteria about “fraud” that conservatives use to smear other social programs. Remember that Sen. Ted Cruz called the subsidies “sugar," telling Sean Hannity that when Americans got a taste of it, they’d be “addicted to the sugar, addicted to the subsidies. And once that happens, in all likelihood, it never gets …”

“It’s over,” Hannity declared. “It never gets repealed."


Still, a high rate of subsidies will let the GOP continue to demonize the “takers” vs. the “makers.” But some of them are going to have a big problem: A lot of the takers will turn out to be their voters. Poor Mitch McConnell: His own state of Kentucky, under the leadership of Democratic Gov. Steve Brashear, set up its own insurance exchange, expanded Medicaid and conducted a bold public health campaign to get folks into “Kynect.” Now Kentucky has reduced the number of uninsured by 40 percent – and many of those newly insured are McConnell’s aging white constituents.

McConnell seems appropriately alarmed. The man who has repeatedly pledged to “repeal” the law just this week told healthcare workers in Kentucky that repealing the law can’t happen while Obama is president, so “we’re going to figure out a way to get this fixed.” That softer tone isn’t sitting well with his Tea Party challenger Matt Bevin, who’s already accusing McConnell of being an Obamacare appeaser, but the Senate minority leader seems to be looking past Bevin to his November battle with Alison Lundergan Grimes.

The only thing that might get Republicans out of a mess of their own making is Democratic cowardice, and you can never underestimate the capacity of centrist and red state Democrats to sabotage themselves and their own party. We’ll see how hard Grimes hits McConnell over his role in obstructing the ACA; so far, it hasn’t been very hard at all. She needs to make him the man who’s trying to charge women more than men for insurance again; the man who’s trying to take healthcare away from 370,000 Kentuckians who have it thanks to Democrats.

Democrats have similar opportunities in Virginia and Arkansas. Republicans have been itching to make the midterms a referendum on Obamacare. Thursday’s news means that might not work the way they had planned.

By Joan Walsh