It was supposed to be so easy this election year for Republican congressional candidates. All they would have to do was shout "repeal Obamacare!" and make a crack about government doctors and broken websites, and they could coast into office on a wave of public fury. The failure of the Affordable Care Act was simply assumed.
But it has not quite worked out that way. The government website was fixed, and 8.1 million people managed to sign up for insurance through the exchanges. An additional 4.8 million people received coverage through Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Three million people under the age of 26 were covered by their parents’ plans. Though the law itself has never been widely popular, most people say they like its component parts, and a large majority now says it wants the law improved rather than repealed.
That sentiment conflicts with the Republican playbook, which party leaders are suddenly trying to rewrite. The result has been an incoherent mishmash of positions, as candidates try to straddle a widening gap between blind hatred of health reform and the public’s growing recognition that much of it is working.
Sometimes the dissonance reaches nearly comic levels. The Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, recently won his party’s primary for his Kentucky Senate seat in part by saying he wanted to repeal the health law "root and branch." Last week, though, he was asked what repeal would mean for the 413,000 people who had signed up for insurance under Kynect, Kentucky’s state-run exchange. "I think that’s unconnected to my comments about the overall question," he said. McConnell knows full well, of course, that the popular Kynect program was created by the Affordable Care Act and could not exist without it, but he is hoping to fool his constituents into believing the health care access they like has nothing to do with the law he has fought against for so long or with President Barack Obama.
His campaign even suggested he would allow many of the 300,000 Kentuckians who signed up for Medicaid — solely because of the law’s expansion — to stay covered after repeal, which makes about as much sense as his previous statement.
Many other Republican candidates have also switched from brimstone to mush on the issue, no longer claiming they will repeal the law but will instead "replace" it or "fix" it in some unspecified way that could not possibly work.
The good news is that some Democratic candidates, sensing the same change in the weather, are beginning to campaign on the law’s benefits. Improving access to health care was the right thing for the country, and supporting it may turn out to be good politics, too.
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