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The ‘Conservatives Are Doomed’ Gambit

Wall Street Journal

Barack Obama emerged from his short-lived political retirement on Sunday to call on Members of Congress to show the “political courage” to preserve ObamaCare. But wait. That plea doesn’t square with the deluge of recent stories predicting that Republicans have doomed their majority in 2018 by voting last week to repeal ObamaCare. How does it take “political courage” to oppose something that everyone claims is politically suicidal?

Perhaps because the predictors of Republican doom could be wrong. The midterm election is still 18 months away, and many events will intervene that could influence the result. But even if the campaign does turn on repealing ObamaCare, we’d argue that the politics are better for Republicans if they pass their reform and fulfill a campaign promise than if they fail and then duck and cover.

Start with the safe assumption that the Democratic base will be highly motivated to vote next November no matter what Republicans in Congress do. The left will be eager to repudiate President Trump, and that means trying to retake the House and Senate. House Republicans can’t do much to deflate that liberal enthusiasm, any more than Democrats could deter the tea party in 2010.

That means the only way to survive the liberal wave will be to keep the Republican base eager to vote too. But there’s no better way to dampen GOP enthusiasm than by failing to show any tangible achievements for electing a Republican Congress and President. It’s far easier to politically defend legislative success, even if a law’s benefits still aren’t clear, than it is to justify an obvious failure. And Republicans made no clearer promise in 2016 than that they’d repeal ObamaCare.

Another reason to pass repeal and replace is that Republicans will be blamed for the failing state of the ObamaCare insurance exchanges no matter what they do. Some conservatives think the Republicans could blame Democrats for higher premiums and fewer choices if they do nothing. But who will believe them? The media will say the opposite, and voters know the GOP promised to do something.

There’s no guarantee that the House reform, or the final version that emerges from Congress, would prevent higher premiums, especially in the first year. But at least the GOP’s reforms would make it more likely that insurers remain in the exchanges because they’ll have a chance of selling policies that make a profit.

And 2019 could see a significant recovery as the reforms kick in—news that would begin to break next summer and fall as insurers announce their 2019 plans. Republicans could take credit for even modest progress given that the critics are predicting catastrophe. The status quo guarantees continued deterioration in health-care options of the kind taking place in Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia.

Twenty Republicans voted against the House bill last week, and presumably they think this helps their chances in 2018. But the history of midterm elections shows that voting against something won’t save Members in swing districts if there’s a national tide.

Many moderate Democrats voted against ObamaCare in 2010, but nearly every one was still swept away that November. Republicans and independents came out to oppose President Obama and his agenda, and that meant voting against the nearest vulnerable Democrat. The Democrats who survived were in the most liberal, and thus the politically safest, districts.

The same is likely to be true in 2018 if Republicans can’t motivate their base to turn out in swing districts. The most likely to lose would be Members like Michael Coffman in suburban Denver, Barbara Comstock in northern Virginia, or Brian Fitzpatrick in suburban Philadelphia—no matter their votes last week against the American Health Care Act.

Many of the Democrats and media voices now predicting Republican doom have no idea what will happen in 2018 but want to scare the GOP into doing nothing. Then they can claim that Republicans failed because they were both too radical and incompetent. The lesson for Republicans is to keep their promise to voters to replace ObamaCare and defend without apology what they accomplish.