01.19.11

The GOP's Health-Care Repeal Kabuki

The Republicans got their symbolic victory in the House on health care. But with Speaker John Boehner's repeal effort going nowhere fast, Eric Alterman asks, who's really running the show?

In a move that, with any justice, would enshrine the notion of “ Kabuki Democracy” in the nation’s consciousness, the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives engineered an entirely symbolic 245 to 189 vote to “repeal and replace” the Obama administration’s health-care reform plan with unnamed and so far secret “free-market solutions” to control health costs and expand coverage.

They’re calling it Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act, and almost nothing about the melodrama on the floor of the House that passed it was on the level. Most obviously, the vote will not, in anyone’s imagination, lead to the repeal of the bill, as Harry Reid has made it clear the Senate will not be taking it up, ever. This is just as well with the Republicans, however, as they have not bothered even to begin crafting an alternative. (“I don’t know that we need artificial deadlines set up for the committees to act,” Speaker John Boehner said. “We expect them to act in an efficient way, allowing all of their members on their committees to be heard, both Democrats and Republicans.”

Nor would it be accurate to term what happened on the House floor to be a “debate” by any of the known definitions of the term. As Ezra Klein observed, “Each representative gets a minute to speak before they yield the floor…No exchange of views. No probing of weak arguments. Just a lot of quick and poorly written sound bites, one after the other, over and over again.”

It’s hardly a wonder that no minds were changed. In fact the “repeal” side appears to have given up ground. Republicans had hoped to secure a significant number of Democrats to join them in this exercise but managed only three. Suzy Khimm notes, this means “10 House Democrats who voted against the original health-reform bill refused to repeal it today.” This may have something to do with the fact that suddenly, Barack Obama is popular again, with more Americans approving of his performance and more seeing him as a political moderate, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. In the survey, 53 percent said they approved of the job Obama is doing as president, which marks a rise of eight percentage points from December, a jump of nearly 20 percent. And remember, this is with unemployment still stuck at 9.4 percent and likely destined to fall.

And while it’s true that about as many Americans tell pollsters that the law should be repealed as say it should be retained—another recent Journal/NBC poll shows 46 percent of Americans either “strongly” or “not so strongly” oppose the repeal, compared with 45 percent who either “strongly” or “not so strongly” favor its elimination, while another poll finds an even 39-39 percent split on the question, the “repeal” side has the fanatics on its side. Some 34 percent say they feel “strongly” that the law stinks while only 29 percent feel “strongly” the other way around.

Once you begin to dig down even inches below the surface, one finds a panoply of positions at odds with the Republican “repeal at any cost” position.

But digging down even inches below the surface, one finds a panoply of positions at odds with the Republican “repeal at any cost” position. For instance, when pollsters working for ABC News/Washington Post asked opponents of the health-care law to name their preferences, only 26 percent said they really wanted repeal. Others wanted the law expanded or reformed or scaled back in specific areas. In fact, the number who wants the law expanded is just about equal to the number who wants it repealed.

Democrats know this, and know that repeal is extremely unlikely to take place. ( New York’s Rep. Anthony Weiner tried to turn it into a drinking game: “You take a shot whenever the Republicans say something that’s not true.”)

They also know that now that the law has been passed, a great many vested interests—interests with powerful Washington lobbies—are not interested in having all the planning and investment they have done on that basis thrown into question. Neither, presumably, will the estimated 129 million Americans with pre-existing medical conditions likely be supportive once Democrats start accusing their opponents of looking to throw them to the mercy of an all-but unregulated insurance industry. We will see how serious the Republicans are when it comes time to cut off funding for the bill many months from now.

In the meantime, the entire exercise raises the question of who is really running the Republican Party. After all, who benefits from this vote? My answer would be conservative Capo de tutti capi Roger Ailes and Fox News. They get days and days of free programming and pretend debate with congressman after congressman expressing the same talking points that viewers hear on a daily basis from Hannity, Beck, O’Reilly, and Palin. Plenty of free outrage will be on display, and Stewart and Colbert can rerun it as parody the following night. (Remember all those folks who think the law really, really stinks. Well, they all watch Fox…) Meanwhile, the folks on Fox can pretend, with Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, that (all of a sudden) it is an outrage that the Democratic Senate is playing a dysfunctional role in our democracy. “The American people deserve a full hearing,” Cantor said, “they deserve to see this legislation go to the Senate for a full vote.”

Nancy Pelosi’s House majority passed fully 300 bills that, as David Weigel reports, “never got anywhere in the Senate,” and that was under a supermajority of the same party. Now all of a sudden one meaningless bill is bottled up and it’s a national emergency. Still, it will sound just great on Fox News…

Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College, a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress and media columnist for The Nation. His newest book, Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama, is available now.