There are two ways to look at Obamacare. One is that it was more or less American politics working as it’s supposed to.
Democrats won two wave elections in a row and amassed a tremendous amount of political power. That done, they turned to their top priority: health reform. They recognized that their majority, though large, wasn’t particularly liberal, and in a bid to win over both moderate Democrats and Republicans, they abandoned their single-payer dreams and their public option hopes and crafted legislation based on Mitt Romney’s successful, bipartisan Massachusetts reforms.
The final bill passed the House, passed the Senate, and was signed into law by the president. The vote fell on party lines, but then, most major votes these days fall on party lines. Obamacare is now covering about 20 million people at a cost lower than anyone anticipated. This is the political system doing its job in a polarized age.
But there’s another popular narrative of Obamacare — that it was a hijacking of American politics in order to pass radical, unconstitutional legislation that forever transformed the country.
In this telling, Democrats won a hefty majority on a message of unity and moderation and then rammed socialized health care down the country’s throat. They bought off interest groups, exploited parliamentary loopholes, and ignored the clear will of the people. The GOP’s lockstep opposition was driven by the danger posed by the legislation and the corruption of the process. The Tea Party — which had its roots, remember, in the administration’s housing policies, not in Obamacare — was a necessary reaction to the Democrats’ unforgivable decision to use a transient majority to permanently reshape America.
Longtime readers won’t be surprised to know I think the first narrative is basically true and the second narrative is rather overwrought. But the second narrative is widely believed on the right. It’s what the Republican Party has been telling its voters for years.
Republicans executed a coordinated and successful strategy to make sure the country saw Obama as a hardcore partisan and Obamacare as an unconstitutional takeover of the American health care system (despite the fact that the hypothetically unconstitutional part, the individual mandate, was actually a Republican idea that many Senate Republicans were supporting at the same time they were opposing Obamacare). They did everything in their power to whip their base into a frenzy over the law. And they succeeded.
To say this more simply, grassroots conservatives weren’t fated to panic over Obamacare. They were told to panic over Obamacare. And their leaders told them that for good reason.
Republicans persuaded their base that something terrible was happening to the country and promised that if they won the 2010 election they could undo the damage Obama had done. The strategy worked. Republicans won the 2010 election, and they won it in a big way. But then they couldn’t undo what Obama had done. And their base was too scared to simply accept that.
Republican voters have good reason believe American politics is truly broken and something precious about this country is on the verge of being lost forever. They have been told that, again and again, by every leader and pundit in their party, for years.
They were told that by Mitt Romney, who said we are “inches away from no longer being a free economy.” They were told that by John Boehner, who won a House majority based on the promise that he could repeal Obamacare even though he knew nothing of the sort was true. They’ve been told this by writers like Kraushaar, who even now argue that Obamacare was an epochal abuse of the political system that set the country — or at least the Republican Party — on a path to ruin.
And those are the sober, establishment-oriented figures I’m quoting. What GOP voters have heard on talk radio has been much, much worse.
Now elite Republicans are panicking as they watch their base turn to different and terrifying kinds of politicians in response. But even as the strategy of calculated hysteria destroys them, they can’t seem to stop arguing that the Obama era — as represented, in this case, by Obamacare — has been a scary aberration in American politics.
Republicans desperately need to persuade their base that this moment isn’t as dire as they think it is and a more conventional class of political figures is appropriate to meet it. But doing so would require such a radical revision of the party’s core narrative — a narrative they themselves believe — that it’s become effectively impossible.