Speaker John Boehner and the House Republican leadership team claimed a victory for their legislative agenda on Wednesday, Jan. 19 with the passage of their chief legislative priority for the incoming Congress: the repeal of last year’s health care reform package. The final vote was 245 members (242 Republicans, 3 Democrats) voting for repeal and 189 Democrats opposing the measure.
The rhetorical battle cry of then-Minority Leader Boehner during last year’s Congressional elections was that a GOP majority would "repeal and replace" the new health care law, billed as President Obama’s signature electoral accomplishment. This week’s vote for repeal did not attempt to replace anything, posing a substantial problem for the GOP which is still missing a substitute.
Some see Wednesday’s repeal vote as the newly elected Republican House adhering to a promise made to the base during the contentious 2010 campaign season. I am starting to believe it was a strategic blunder for the GOP to charge ahead, seemingly abandoning the cautious approach that defines the nature of political conservatism. Conservatism, after all, is defined by its philosophical titans like Russell Kirk and Edmund Burke as putting prudence and caution ahead of a hasty, reckless charge forward.
Fresh polling data confirms that opposition to the health care reform law is nowhere near as unanimous as Republicans seem to suggest. First, a new McClatchy-Marist Poll conducted between Jan. 6-10 suggests that 35 percent of those surveyed prefer that the health care law be amended to "do more" than the one passed last year while 14 percent favor the existing law. Meanwhile, 30 percent favored a total repeal while 13 percent favored overhauling it to "do less" than it does at this moment. Taken together, 49 percent either favor the existing law or want a more aggressive reform measure while 43 percent back an all-out repeal or a scaled-back measure.
A second poll conducted earlier this month by ABC News and the Washington Post reveals that 50 percent oppose the health care law while 45 percent favor it. Digging deeper into the data we find that 13 percent of the aforementioned half who oppose the law do so on grounds that it does not go far enough to address the nation’s health care problems. 35 percent oppose the law for going too far. Although the readjusted figure would reflect 58 percent supporting the health care law or a more aggressive version of it, a staggering 62 percent think the law will increase the federal deficit and a majority believes that it will lead to a loss of jobs and a weakened economy. This certainly reflects a mixed bag rather than a mandate for either side.
Lastly, an extensive poll done by AP-GfK (Roper) between Jan. 5-11 shows that 62 percent of respondents either favor leaving the new law alone or strengthening it. Just 36 percent favor repealing or weakening the law. The most intriguing numbers come when respondents were asked about the specific reforms embedded within the law. A whopping 59 percent favor the requirement for medium and large companies to offer health insurance or face a penalty while the same number oppose allowing insurance companies to stop coverage for customers who develop serious illnesses. Respondents also favor the component within the law preventing insurance companies from denying coverage to those with preexisting conditions by a 50-34 margin.
Despite heavy support for these vital elements of the Obama-Care reforms, 59 percent oppose the law’s mandate that every American citizen purchase health insurance, which is clearly bad news for the Democrats. The real kicker comes near the end of the poll, which asks respondents which party they believe can be most trusted on the health care issue, to which the Democrats hold a comfortable 49-37 lead over the GOP.
So what does all this mean? For starters, it means that the public is generally warming up to the health care law as increasing numbers of citizens either report to favor the health care law or favor a more aggressive approach. It also indicates strong support for barring insurers from denying coverage to those with preexisting conditions, preventing insurance companies from booting those who develop serious illnesses from their coverage plans, and support for requiring companies to provide health coverage for their workers. Despite strong opposition to the mandate that every citizen purchase health care coverage, the Democrats outpace the Republicans by a healthy 12 points on the health care trust factor.
This is where the danger comes in for Republicans who insisted on making their very first act as the majority party in the U.S. House a repeal bill lacking the corresponding replacement they insisted they would offer during the 2010 campaign. Voters do not reject the entire health care reform law, only the mandate for purchasing coverage. The GOP’s Wednesday repeal vote told the majorities favoring the other reforms within the law that they were willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater and restore the pre-2010 status quo rather than simply addressing the unpopular mandate piece.
Trailing the Democrats on the trust quotient even prior to the repeal vote, Republicans now run the risk of digging themselves deeper into the hole on the heels of the 2012 presidential and congressional elections simply to satisfy the disgruntled Tea Party groups whose bark appears to be far worse than their bite. Republicans should have taken the time to sharpen their argument against the individual mandate and rally the public to their cause on the one element of the health care law where they could make gains. Instead they trotted out specious claims that the entire law will kill jobs and drive the country into debt, both of which appear to have been debunked by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service and the esteemed Congressional Budget Office.
By voting for a complete repeal of Obama-Care without a patient, sober, factual examination of the potential negative side effects of such a vote, Republicans resembled bulls in a china shop rather than cautious, prudent conservatives. The point isn’t that Republicans ought to abandon their promise to move forward with replacing the health care law that they ran against in 2010. Instead, they should have crafted a more artful approach that was cognizant of the fact that the American people rightfully view the health care law as a complex creation rather than accepting or rejecting the entire law outright. Now they must brace for impact as they have opened the door for Democrats to capitalize on their recklessness.