Friday, February 27, 2015

The Obamacare Gambit

Queen's Gambit Opening (An Omnivore Favorite)
The Supreme Court is about to start hearing arguments in the King vs. Burwell case that could very well destroy Federal subsidies for ObamaCare in states that don't have their own exchange. If that happens there will be chaos! The link looks at what the GOP might do about it--but there's a new wrinkle: What  if the Obama administration does nothing about it?

The ObamaCare Gambit
A gambit is a strategy (usually in chess) where one party (usually White) sacrifices material to gain a stronger positional advantage (the White player gives away the bishop's pawn--if Black decides to take--in order to control the valuable center of the board). In politics it can mean losing a 'battle' to win the war.

The ObamaCare Gambit looks like this:
Some Republicans say they simply do not believe that the Obama administration isn’t developing a fallback plan in case the Supreme Court dismantles a piece of the healthcare law this summer.
Sylvia Burwell, the secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), has repeatedly said there is no plan B if the high court rules that subsidies for insurance cannot be distributed through the federal exchange
. . .
"No credible person would believe that," Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) told The Hill on Wednesday.
"It would be executive malpractice not to have a plan, a contingency plan, for what happens when that court ruling comes down, and I'm going to assume that this government doesn't practice executive malpractice,” he said.
The takeaway here is as follows:
  1. The lawsuit is poised to wreak havoc.
  2. Republicans have no easy fix for the chaos (they have several potentially good or at least decent healthcare alternatives but agreement doesn't exist and time-to-implement would be substantial).
  3. With the wave of destruction poised to strike (and strike hardest in Republican states for people using the Federal Exchanges) the administration's contingency plan is  . . . nothing?
Could that be true?

Option One: Of Course Not--They Have A Plan*
The sane money says that Team Obama is gonna do something. They must have some contingency plan in place should the court rule against them. This plan would likely (a) involve weakening ObamaCare substantially (making all kinds of concessions to Republicans to keep the Federal subsidies?) or (b) throwing themselves on their swords and admitting they were wrong and lying all along.

Either one would be good for Republicans--but, hey, Team Obama's back is to the wall here. Sometimes there are no good options. 

And above all, they have to save the Federal Subsidies! That's Obama's legacy. Don't think for a minute there isn't a plan!!

Why would they say they don't? To influence the Supreme Court, of course. Roberts doesn't want court-induced chaos on his watch, does he?
[ The chaos striking down O-Care would cause ]—and not the merits of the law—is the reason I have long thought that SCOTUS is likely to blink on this. On purely legal grounds, I believe the plaintiffs have a good case, but the consequences seem so potentially cataclysmic that SCOTUS will be reluctant to trigger them. Whether the justices should take that sort of thing under consideration, the reality is that they sometimes do, and they then figure out a way to justify their decision legally (there’s always a way to do that). That’s what I think Justice Roberts did when he “creatively” declared the Obamacare penalty a tax forone purpose and not for another (see this). It’s my opinion that his motive for turning himself into a mental pretzel was to avoid what he saw as too dramatic a result if the main basis of Obamacare coercion, the penalty, was declared unconstitutional.
Option Two: The ObamaCare Gambit
On the other hand, what if Obama just let it fail? See, if Obama has to act to step in then he has to make concessions--probably big ones. If he just says it fails, well, won't he get the blame? The answer--and this should be obvious if demoralizing to Republicans--is probably not. Why not? Well (a) because the Republicans are the Kill ObamaCare At All Cost party (remember the government shutdown, anyone?) and (b) they're seen as the ones bringing and championing the lawsuit. 

Yes, of course, the problem is of the Democrat's own making. Yes, the Democrats shoved ObamaCare down everyone's throats. Yes, yes--they passed it with reconciliation. Yes, there are zero Republican fingerprints on it anywhere (but there are knuckle-marks--and that's important). But also: YES, the Supreme Court upheld it--and it's a, let's face it, Republican majority Supreme Court. YES, maybe Obama had pictures of Justice John Roberts with a farm animal or something--but the fact is that's the way it went down.

So here's how the gambit strategy plays out: 
  1. SCOTUS strikes down the subsidies
  2. Team Obama throws up its hands: "We do NOT agree with this--and the Republican controlled Congress should simply amend the bill as it was intended from the beginning."
  3. The GOP demands Obama's contingency plan.
  4. Team Obama says "There isn't one. You guys fix it or show me an alternative."
At This Point: Predictable Chaos
We've seen this play out before. The hard-liners demand nothing by way of fixes until Obama agrees to a full rollback of the ACA. Other Republicans propose their fixes--from major to minor--but they can't get agreement or traction with each other. Intra-party finger-pointing begins. The Democrats stand back and say: "This is simple, my fellow Americans. The solution is one page. Maybe just 4 words. Fix it." The media shows endless stories of mothers with sick kids whose healthcare is in jeopardy while congress churns.

A cry--a small, tinny cry--echoes up from the Republican party: "It's Obama's fault. This is all his fault!!"

And they're right

No one listens. No one can even hear them over the noise.

Eventually McConnell caves. Then Boehner. The subsidies are reinstated and GOP favorability hovers as 5.3%.

Could This Happen?
The GOP strategy--at least for the base--has several blind spots and the big one is that they don't understand why people in general don't absolutely hate Obama as much as they do. Political polarization has replaced religious schisms. Inter-political marriage is the new taboo. It even trumps racism. This leads to miscalculations about what people in general will put up with. It led to the calculus that a government shutdown was more popular than ObamaCare. It's leading to the strategy that a DHS shutdown would be more popular than amnesty (here's a poll). 

It also wreaks havoc on the optics of how the GOP gets its job done. Wanting to clash with Obama sells well in red districts--but to people only halfway paying attention, it looks like a personal feud. Wanting to remove the ACA is fine--but you need to have a clear consistent message as to what to replace it with--especially now that millions of people have health insurance they, erm, kinda like.

In other words, the drivers for GOP strategy are consistently leading them into fights where they have both more to lose than to win and very risky down-sides they are not moving to mitigate. Until this condition changes, being in the majority in Congress is more damaging to them than being in the minority was.

This pattern is not only recurrent--but it is predictable. Obama gets a lot of nonsense credit for being a super-strategist: in this case just sitting on his ass is a winning strategy and even most partisan GOP Base voters think President Present is capable of that.

Edited to add: The GOP is interested in making sure subsidies continue flowing if SCOTUS strikes down the law.

* Battlestar Galactica fans will remember that, allegedly, the cylons 'had a plan' too. It turned out they didn't either. Coincidence??

No comments:

Post a Comment