King v. Burwell and Jindal’s Real Leverage

Well, fate may have given Bobby Jindal his heart’s desire: a way to exert real leverage on the GOP via his aborning presidential campaign.

He sure needed some help. His efforts to be a holier-than-anyone ally of the Christian Right were probably doomed to failure against competition with the credentials of Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson and Rick Perry. And his record in Louisiana–increasingly criticized by Republicans as well as Democrats–is becoming a real millstone.

But thanks to a proposal on health care he first tossed into the mix last spring, Jindal is well-positioned to argue against any Obamacare “replacement” that relies on the basic structure of the Affordable Care Act, or that incorporates its budgetary assumptions, or that can be said to “compete” with the satanic instrument of socialized medicine by treating people well.

The Washington Examiner‘s Philip Klein thinks this is potentially a very big, and not necessarily (for Republicans) very good deal:

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has laid down a marker on conservative alternatives to President Obama’s healthcare law that could shape the 2016 Republican presidential race — even if he doesn’t win.

On Tuesday, Jindal wrote a letter to Congress, putting members on notice: “(C)onservatives need to focus on truly conservative health reforms — and not merely a slightly-less-liberal plan.”

He followed this up with a speech in Washington, D.C., where he took a swipe at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

“If the whole point of this election was simply to give John Boehner and Mitch McConnell nicer offices, let’s give them back,” Jindal said, as reported by my Washington Examiner colleague Jason Russell. “What is the point of having a Republican Party if it’s only going to become a second liberal party?….”

One Republican alternative plan, first unveiled last year but re-introduced for this Congress on Thursday by Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., does lean on the current Obamacare baseline. And it includes a tax increase on employer-based health insurance that helps finance generous subsidies for low-income Americans to purchase coverage.

But Republicans have another option. They could wipe out Obamacare completely, return tax and spending levels to where they would have been if the law had never passed, and build a free market alternative from scratch. This is the approach that Jindal favors and that he took when he released his own healthcare plan last year.

Going this route would mean that Republicans couldn’t spend much on subsidizing health coverage, opening them up to attacks that they’re stripping away Obamacare without offering a sufficient life raft for its beneficiaries. Jindal argues that Republicans shouldn’t fall into the trap of competing with Democrats on coverage totals and that they should instead focus on reducing costs.

Whatever the policy debate, politically speaking, it’s clear to see how Jindal’s position could influence other candidates in the Republican presidential primary. Though Jindal hasn’t been among the leaders in early presidential polls, he’s still viewed as an important policy voice among conservatives, especially on healthcare.

But there’s an even more immediate way Bobby’s attacks on any Obamacare replacement plan that seeks to “compete” with Democratic beneficence could cause problems: by interfering with the signals other Republicans are trying to send to the Supreme Court that they can avoid chaos of the Court knocks out the ACA’s subsidies in states using a federally created exchange. As reformicon Ramesh Ponnuru notes in a column criticizing Jindal’s proposal, it doesn’t just fail to avoid disruption of insurance markets and coverage–it promises a whole lot of it. And if other presidential wannabes pick up on his line of attack, the fiction that Republicans can be expected to behave responsibly in the aftermath of a shocking Supreme Court decision would vanish once and for all.

Yeah, in some respects it would be nice if Bobby just went back to his Muslim-bashing.

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.