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May 22, 2014 11:30 AM Why “Repealing Obamacare” Is So Important a Mantra to Conservatives

By Ed Kilgore

During the runup to the May 20 primaries, my Georgia-residing mother-in-law helpfully sent me several batches of fliers for candidates—invariably Republican candidates, since competitive Democratic primaries in her exurban Atlanta county were virtually non-existent—running for federal office (generally the Senate or the 11th congressional district House seat). I was amused by the extent to which these candidate went over the top in competing claims about their zeal to completely, utterly, absolutely annihilate Obamacare, as though it were 1942 and Obamacare was Germany and Japan combined. You’d think that since they all agreed on the proposition that Obamacare was evil and had to be repealed lest America perish, they’d be arguing about something else. But no.

Jonathan Chait gets at the root of this mania in a perceptive piece about conservative self-policing against any willigness to compromise on Obamacare, led most recently, as one might expect, by Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, who is struggling for traction in the Republican activist “base” by becoming the most militant of militants:

Bobby Jindal, the prospective Republican presidential candidate, warns that unnamed fellow conservatives are secretly contemplating surrender in the crusade against Obamacare. “[E]ven many conservative ‘thinkers’ in Washington have given in to ObamaCare fatalism,” he writes, using scare quotes to indicate his skepticism that these traitors think at all. “They may not say so in public, but they fully believe that talk of the law’s repeal exists only in the land of unsophisticated rubes.” Meanwhile, conservative health-care writer/activist Jeffrey Anderson has heard the same secret concerns. “It’s a question often asked these days in conservative circles: Do you really think Obamacare can be repealed?,” he reveals in the Weekly Standard, “Usually uttered behind closed doors, the question reveals both an un-Reagan-like pessimism and something of a disconnect from political reality.”

Part of the problem, of course, is that until such time as Republicans control both Congress (they’d arguably need 60 Senate votes) and the White House, “repealing Obamacare” just ain’t happening. Another part of the problem is that no matter how fervently they oppose Obamacare, there will inevitably be some overlap between the provisions of the Affordable Care Act and any politically viable GOP “replacement” initiative. After you deal with those problems in the “repeal now!” mantra, there’s this little matter of adjusting to growing evidence that Obamacare is succeeding in important respects, a reality that public opinion should ultimately begin to reflect.

All the more reason, says Chait, why maintaining absolute conservative solidarity on the subject is such a priority right now, and an irresistable temptation to opportunists like Jindal:

Conceptually, there is no difference between “repealing” and “reforming” Obamacare. Both involve altering the status quo, which entails the existence of President Obama’s health-care law. One could, in theory, “repeal” Obamacare and replace it with a new law that differed only slightly. Alternatively, one could keep the law in place while “reforming” it into something unrecognizable. The rhetorical emphasis on repeal is a way of signaling the absence of secret pragmatic impulses or, worse still, glimmers of regret at the prospect of throwing millions of Americans off their insurance.

In the broader debate about exactly who—the supposedly pragmatic “Republican Establishment” or the Tea Party—controls the GOP at the moment, this emphasis on rooting out “secret pragmatic impulses” (arguably the raison d’etre of the Tea Folk) on Obamacare is illuminating. The more they suppress heresy, the more you wonder how much of it exists under the surface.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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