Opinion

Why Republicans should save ObamaCare

If the Affordable Care Act fails, the GOP will get the blame

The spectacle is astounding: With a Republican in the White House and the GOP firmly in control of the House and Senate, Congress still can't pass major legislation. The push to repeal and replace ObamaCare failed before even coming to the House floor. Now, with Congress nowhere close to passing a budget before funding runs out at week's end, a government shutdown is a real possibility, even as President Trump vows to re-fight the health-care battle and take on tax reform, too.

Why is Washington paralyzed? Partly because Republicans are divided: What pleases the House Freedom Caucus is poison to GOP moderates and vice versa. The party is cleft between Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan as well. The president owns the hearts and minds of the party's voters and the loudest voices in right-wing media, but he hasn't built up a policy team. Ryan has the policy expertise, yet he's a villain in the eyes of Trump's base — especially the part that Breitbart speaks for — and is distrusted by the Freedom Caucus. The Republicans are hardly "a" party anymore; in the absence of leadership both inspiring and competent, they're turning into a swarm of micro-parties

But the other reason Congress is stuck dead is that Democrats know that entropy is on their side. Republicans in the Obama years had nothing to lose if nothing passed Congress without incurring the president's veto. The Trump administration is gambling that the same logic doesn't apply to Democrats. In this, they are very wrong.

Unless the White House and Republicans in Congress agree to extend subsidies, ObamaCare premiums will soar — federal dollars are precisely what make the Affordable Care Act affordable for millions of Americans. Already, Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, has floated the idea of trading subsidies in exchange for Democrats agreeing to fund Trump's border wall. Trump has since reportedly backed off the border wall demand, but you can see that Team Trump believes those endangered subsidies give the White House leverage over Democrats. It's just not so.

In fact, it's Republicans who are now the hostages to ObamaCare. With their party in full control of the federal government, they stand to take the blame for all of the discontent voters have with their insurance premiums and coverage, no matter what happens. This is what made repealing and replacing ObamaCare too risky for many House Republicans last month. The risk isn't any less when it comes to the subsidies. Ironically, this means that to escape the blowback of ObamaCare's failure, Republicans actually have to make ObamaCare succeed. Or at least, they have to keep it as stable as possible. Voters are not going to examine the legislative process closely to see which party did what to make premiums skyrocket. They'll simply look at who's in office when it happens and vote accordingly.

Democrats may not want to call the GOP's bluff, but if they do, they're holding the right cards. They can defy Trump with the same impunity Republicans enjoyed when they defied Obama. The only ways out of this impasse are for Republicans to start acting like a coherent party again or for the White House to win over Democrats with incentives rather than threats. There are good reasons why neither of those things is likely to happen.

Congress has more to lose from a stalemate than Trump does, at least in the short term. Ryan has to worry about his majority come November of next year — and even if Republicans keep the House, a narrowed majority means yet bigger headaches for the speaker. The president might succeed for awhile in faulting a dysfunctional Washington and absolving himself of any blame for his shipwrecked agenda.

But come 2020, how will voters look at a president whose party simply can't govern?

Trump has turned politics upside down before, shattering all the conventional rules on his way to the Republican nomination and victory in November. Now he'll have to do it again if he wants to be known to history as a winning president, not just an extraordinary candidate.

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