Republicans are suddenly confronted with the notion of responsibility. And they're terrified.

There's no better example than their latest ObamaCare ruse

Uh oh.
(Image credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Since Republicans took the House in the 2010 elections, there was one thing in Washington more reliable than rising property prices, the annual blooming of the cherry blossoms, or broken escalators on the Metro: Every couple of months, there would be a vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, that vile oppressor of Americans. Republicans held over 60 repeal votes, every one as pointless as the last, just to show how much they hated, hated, hated the law.

And now come January, they'll finally have their chance to plunge a legislative sword through its black heart, killing it once and for all so we can breathe the sweet air of liberty once more. Right?

Well... turns out it's a little complicated. Reports from Capitol Hill show a bit of nervousness on their part. "With buy-in from Donald Trump's transition team," reports Politico, "GOP leaders on both sides of the Capitol are coalescing around a plan to vote to repeal the law in early 2017 — but delay the effective date for that repeal for as long as three years." Three years, three years — now what's the significance of that time period?

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Well, it takes us past the 2018 midterm elections. But if the law is so awful, wouldn't they want to cast it off as soon as they can? And wouldn't the voters reward Republicans richly for doing so? Apparently not.

The truth Republicans are confronting is that while this thing called "ObamaCare" is unpopular in the abstract, most of the things ObamaCare does are quite popular. Just look at these results from the Kaiser Family Foundation's latest tracking poll on the law:

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Even Republicans like most of the law, which may be why only 26 percent of respondents in that poll said that it should be repealed. And if you take all those popular provisions away, people aren't going to be too pleased. Remember what a big deal Republicans made out of the fact that a small number of people getting coverage on the individual market had to change plans after the ACA went into effect? Now imagine 20 million people losing their coverage all at once, while the rest of us lose the security we've enjoyed for the last few years. "Backlash" doesn't begin to describe what will result, and everyone will know exactly whom to blame.

Which is why there's a second element to the Republicans' plan: not just delaying the repeal, but doing it without coming up with a replacement. Their thinking is that by establishing a ticking time bomb, they'll coerce Democrats — whom they believe are possessed of enough human feeling to not want people to suffer — to join with them to pass a replacement, which can then be sold as a bipartisan solution. And if they fail? "The blame will fall on the people who didn't want to do anything," i.e. Democrats, says House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. So the Republican plan is to follow through on their long-sought goal of killing the ACA, then blame Democrats when voters are angry about what they've lost. There's a lot of cynical maneuvering in Washington, but that is something truly remarkable.

It's also a demonstration that being in the opposition is a lot easier than governing, even when you've got complete control of government. Republicans will have some worries about passing their whole agenda — Democrats still have the filibuster in the Senate (for now), and there will be some issues where Republicans will be divided amongst themselves on exactly how to go about accomplishing the goal at hand. But the real problem they'll confront is that their actions will have real-world consequences for which they'll bear responsibility.

You can talk about giving people "something terrific" (as Donald Trump described his intentions for health care), but when you give them something crappy, they won't be pleased. You can talk about "reforming" Medicare, but when you actually try to phase it out, there will be a revolt. You can talk about how cutting taxes for the wealthy will bring about economic nirvana, but when it doesn't, you're the ones who will be blamed.

Republicans are hardly blind to this problem, which is why they're going to keep coming up with gimmicks like the three-year delay on the repeal of the ACA. But if they think that'll enable them to evade responsibility for their actions, they're in for a surprise.

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Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is a senior writer with The American Prospect magazine and a blogger for The Washington Post. His writing has appeared in dozens of newspapers, magazines, and web sites, and he is the author or co-author of four books on media and politics.