GOP's new Obamacare strategy: Why their "repeal" cries have suddenly shifted

As benefits take hold, Republicans' message falls victim to the inevitable onset of nuance

Published May 28, 2014 4:58PM (EDT)

John Boehner, Mitch McConnell                                                            (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
John Boehner, Mitch McConnell (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

A moment of silence, if you please, for the Republican “repeal Obamacare” message. It’s not dead yet, but it has fallen victim to a deadly terminal illness: nuance.

The Wall Street Journal’s Washington Wire blog delivered the diagnosis this morning, noting that the Republican candidate field, as it transitions out of primary season, is discovering that simply calling for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act is not the winning strategy that it was once assumed to be. The millions of people who gained coverage through the ACA, and would stand to lose it were the law to be scuttled, obviously would like to know what comes next. “Republicans won’t back off their push to repeal the law,” Washington Wire notes, “but the message is likely to be more nuanced, said Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster who has long studied the politics of health care.”

“Nuance” in this sense means that Republicans are going to start using terms like “fix” and “reform” alongside (or in place of) “repeal.” It’s already happening in Senate and House races across the country, but it has to be said that Republican candidates still aren’t saying exactly what they would put in Obamacare’s place. Instead we get bromides about “free-market solutions” or “consumer-based” plans.

Greg Sargent has been doing yeoman’s work tracking the Obamacare evasions of some of the Republican Senate candidates in must-win states like North Carolina and Arkansas. They all back “repeal,” but when asked what they’d do to ensure continuing coverage for, say, Medicaid beneficiaries, they duck the question or offer up some well-tossed word salads. The best example of this phenomenon is Mitch McConnell, whose ridiculous strategy is to argue that the popular parts of Obamacare are not actually connected to Obamacare.

The flip side to the Republican embrace of nuance is the emerging trend among Democrats who are crafting their own carefully hedged strategies to support the Affordable Care Act. Once again, from the Wall Street Journal: “In at least half a dozen competitive Senate and gubernatorial races, Democrats and their allies are airing TV commercials that directly support the legislation, focusing on its guaranteed coverage for pre-existing conditions, preventive-care benefits and a ban on charging women more for insurance.”

This shift in strategy from both sides was inevitable, and we’ve been seeing hints of it for a while now. Back in November, when the ACA marked its public debut with a prolonged and agonizing face plant, it made sense for Republicans to harp on the repeal message as they could argue that the law had failed to provide the benefits it promised. The ACA’s remarkable turnaround over the ensuing months hasn’t done a whole lot to improve its public image, but support for repeal has dropped as the formerly uninsured find themselves covered, either through the exchanges or Medicaid.

It’s put both parties in an awkward spot, but the Democrats at least have a coherent message: keep the law alive, but fix it. Republicans are effectively arguing that they want to kill it dead but also somehow keep certain parts of it alive.

By Simon Maloy

MORE FROM Simon Maloy