Obamacare As a Culture-War Issue

Salon‘s Brian Beutler, who has been covering the war on the Affordable Care Act with great skill, offers some perspective today on parallels between the Right’s Obamacare obsession and earlier culture war crusades:

[T]he hostility has become so deeply rooted that it now stands on its own, detached from the ideological and partisan antipathies that gave rise to it.

It has forced conservatives to blind themselves to the law’s positive, unobjectionable qualities, and police those within their ranks who dare to acknowledge them….

[O]n the battlefields of partisan warfare, this sort of post-principled contempt, combined with the inception of benefits, has turned the fight over Obamacare from a dispute over first principles, into a culture war, in which signaling matters more than tactical victories.

The repeal campaign — once marked by earnest and sustained efforts to wipe the law off the books — has all but burned itself out. But the law remains a potent political organizing force — a rallying cry Republicans believe they can use to channel the right’s Obamacare obsession into voter turnout.

An astute friend remarked to me on Tuesday that the GOP’s position on Obamacare is coming to resemble its position on abortion in one key way: loudly, consistently, uniformly opposed, but ultimately not really driven to eliminate it. The backlash they’d face would be brutal, but they might stand to gain by fighting it on the margins and keeping the issue alive.

I understand the parallels Brian is drawing, but have never agreed with the argument that conservatives are just toying with the anti-choicers in pretending to want to ban abortion. The reason the Right and the Republican Party haven’t gone full-bore for an actual abortion ban is very simple: it’s patently unconstitutional under the existing Supreme Court precedents. So they’ve sought to erode abortion rights indirectly, and may have actually found an effective formula (we’ll find out in the next Supreme Court term, more likely than not) via the current “supply-side” strategy of sidelining abortion providers through bogus “health and safety” regulations. But without judicial resistance, there’s no doubt in my mind that the GOP has committed itself beyond any hope of reversal to a return to the days of coat hangers, at least in states where they control the machinery of government.

With Obamacare, there’s no judicial resistance to a complete repeal, and it’s true Republicans are not entirely united on–and understand the political shortcomings of–the “replace” part of the “repeal-and-replace” agenda. But if the GOP wins back the Senate in 2014 and the White House in 2016, the ACA will almost certainly be repealed (as it would have been, in large part, had Republicans won the Senate and the White House last year). Beutler and others who have made the same argument are right: as Obamacare is implemented, its popularity is likely to increase, and some conservatives could shift to a “Plan B” strategy of using the structure of Obamacare as a model for the privatization of Medicare and Medicaid. But in the near term, it will remain the Great White Whale, and the obsession with bringing it down will continue even if it hurts the Republicans hoisting the harpoon.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.