WASHINGTON To understand the crisis in Washington, tune out the histrionics and look at the big picture: Republicans are threatening to shut down the federal government and perhaps even refuse to let the Treasury pay its creditors in a desperate, last-ditch attempt to keep millions of Americans from getting health insurance.
Seriously. That's what all the yelling and screaming is about. As my grandmother used to say, it's hard to know whether to laugh or cry.
The GOP has tried its best to make "Obamacare" a synonym for "boogeyman" and convince people that it's coming in the night to snatch the children. In fact, and I know this comes as a shock to some, Obamacare is not a mythical creature. It is a law, incorporating what were originally Republican ideas, that will make it possible for up to 30 million people now lacking health insurance to obtain it.
Officially, the law in question is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Republicans intended the term Obamacare to be mocking, which is perhaps why President Obama started using it with pride.
It is, indeed, an achievement of which the nation can be proud. About 48 million individuals in this country lacked health insurance in 2012, according to the Census Bureau, representing about 15 percent of the population. Other industrialized nations provide universal health care and wonder if this is what we mean when we talk about American exceptionalism.
About 25 percent of those living in households with annual incomes below $25,000 are uninsured, compared with just 8 percent in households earning more than $75,000. Do the working poor deserve to have their chronic medical conditions go untreated as punishment for not making enough money?
Other rich countries provide truly universal care through single-payer systems of various kinds. Obama chose instead to model the Affordable Care Act after a program implemented on the state level by the Republican governor who became Obama's opponent in the 2012 presidential election. Yes, before Obamacare there was Romneycare, a private-sector, free-market solution designed to be in accord with the GOP's most hallowed principles.
But in the years between Mitt Romney's tenure in Massachusetts and his presidential run, the Republican Party lost its way, or perhaps its mind.
The party shows no serious interest in finding a GOP-friendly way to provide the uninsured with access to health care. Rather, it pursues two goals at any cost: opposing Obama no matter what he does and making people see Obamacare as a failure.
For the radical far right, making health care more widely available through the existing network of insurers, most of them for-profit companies, is a giant leap toward godless socialism. These extremists hold outsized power in the GOP enough to make sane Republican officials fear, with some reason, that anything short of massive resistance to Obamacare could lead to a primary challenge and a shortened career.
Some of Obamacare's provisions are already in force and seem to be having the intended effect. For example, young adults are now allowed to stay on their parents' health insurance policies until age 26. In 2009, 29.8 percent of those 19 through 25 were uninsured; in 2012, 27.2 percent lacked insurance, a modest but significant decline.
Now the central provisions of the Affordable Care Act are set to come into effect the individual mandate, the insurance exchanges, the guarantee of coverage for those with pre-existing conditions. Republicans scream that Obamacare is sure to fail. But what they really fear is that it will succeed.
That's the reason for all the desperation. Republicans are afraid that Obamacare will not prove to be a bureaucratic nightmare that Americans, in fact, will find they actually like it. The GOP fears that Obamacare will even be credited with slowing the rise of health care costs to a more manageable rate. There are signs, in fact, that this "bending of the curve" is already taking place: Medical costs are still rising much faster than inflation but at the slowest rate in decades.
Keeping premiums under control will require convincing lots of young, healthy people to buy insurance and thus, in effect, subsidizing those who are older and sicker. That is why a group called Generation Opportunity, funded by the ultraconservative Koch brothers, plans to tour college campuses with disgusting ads in which a creepy Uncle Sam subjects a young woman to a pelvic examination.
The GOP message: Whatever you do, don't buy health insurance. It may be shudder good for you.
Eugene Robinson's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.