GOP's Obamacare ¯\_(ツ)_/¯? No single meme can capture the Republican health policy disaster

Is the GOP's stance on King v. Burwell really ¯\_(ツ)_/¯? Maybe, but they're getting nothing done regardless

Published May 26, 2015 11:59AM (EDT)

Ron Johnson                (Reuters/Jason Reed)
Ron Johnson (Reuters/Jason Reed)

Sen. Chris Murphy caused a bit of stir last week when he briefly transformed the Senate floor into a platform for meme propagation. The Connecticut Democrat is one of the chief defenders of the Affordable Care Act in Congress, and with the Supreme Court decision in King v. Burwell set to drop very soon, Murphy was on the attack against the Republicans for lacking a plan in case the high court invalidates the law’s health insurance subsidies in 37 states. To make his point, Murphy appropriated the “shruggie.” This thing: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

For those of you who are blessedly ignorant of social media conventions, the shruggie is a quirky Internet thing that the young people on Twitter use instead of words to convey how very little they care about stuff. Sen. Murphy introduced the shruggie to Congress with an admirably deadpan delivery to make the point that the GOP doesn’t actually care if the ACA’s subsidies get torpedoed and millions of people lose their insurance.

I’d imagine that when Murphy’s Republican colleagues saw this and had their interns explain what it meant, they were none too pleased. The message conveyed by Murphy’s shruggie-bomb, however, isn’t precisely accurate. Republicans very well may care about what happens in the aftermath of a King ruling against the administration, insofar as they don’t want to be blamed for it.

You can see this strain of concern reflected in the Wall Street Journal editorial board, which is as good a distillation of mainstream Republican thinking as you’re going to find. The Journal has been begging and pleading with Republicans in Congress to do something to mitigate the damage that a King ruling might visit on the country. Mind you, they’re not particularly concerned about the people whose health insurance might be taken away and they don’t actually expect any Republican plan to pass – they’re more worried that Republicans and conservatives will end up looking bad. “The immediate and persistent headlines through Election Day in 2016 will be about people who have lost or can’t afford their insurance,” the Journal fretted last week. “GOP Governors need a better argument to survive than claiming that things will get better in 2017. And all Republicans need a better response than blaming Mr. Obama and telling Americans to suck it up.”

Republicans in Congress share this concern, which is why they’re throwing around all manner of Obamacare “replacements” and “bridges” to try to convince people that they’re super-serious about being responsible stewards of the healthcare system. But all that action is superficial and serves only to barely obscure the reality that the GOP is, as it has been for several years now, utterly incapable of arriving at any sort of consensus on healthcare policy. The plan that offers the path of least resistance – Sen. Ron Johnson’s proposal to temporarily extend the threatened subsidies while repealing the individual mandate – has already been rejected by House Budget Committee chairman Tom Price, and it’s a strong bet that there are plenty more conservative agitators in the House who will be dead set against taking any action they perceive to be a “bailout” of the ACA.

So, again, they’re making a show of taking lots of action, while beneath the surface they’re tied in knots. The Huffington Post’s Jonathan Cohn laid it all out a couple of weeks ago: If the Republicans are serious about crafting healthcare legislation, as they repeatedly claim to be, then why haven’t they held any hearings on any of the plans they’ve put forth?

The absence of a public effort to match the public rhetoric matters only if Republicans are actually serious about passing a plan. They may not be. Their real goals may be purely cosmetic -- to insulate the party from a political backlash should millions of people suddenly lose health insurance and, more immediately, to ease the anxiety of Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, either of whom might hesitate to issue a ruling with such potentially devastating consequences to so many people.

So it’s possible that the GOP just doesn’t care about putting together a real replacement for the ACA and are just cynically hoping to fall ass-backwards into what would effectively be a judicial repeal of Obamacare. Then again, they could be absolutely terrified that they can’t get their act together in the face of a potential political firestorm that they’ll have called down on themselves.

It’s a complex and uncertain political dynamic, but I don’t know that there’s an emoji or whatever that properly captures the intricacies and nuance of the shambolic Republican health policy fight. So I guess, for the moment, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ will have to do.

By Simon Maloy

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