“I want to be brutally honest with you about the fight to defund Obamacare,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz told a Tea Party crowd gathered outside of the Capitol. “If the traditional rules of Washington apply, we can’t win. If the forum in which we have to make the case is a smoke-filled room, we’ve lost.”
“But,” he continued, “I’m convinced the model has changed. I’m convinced that there is a new paradigm—the grassroots…No elected politician can win this fight.” “Only you,” he said, talking over the excited crowd, “can win this fight.”
I’m not sure this is brutal honesty—though, standing in the D.C. heat, surrounded by hundreds of people, it felt like it—but it’s honest enough. After 40 repeal votes in the House and endless hours of rhetoric against it, one thing is clear: congressional Republicans are powerless to stop the Affordable Care Act. There’s no way a bill would reach Obama’s desk, and if it did, there’s no way he would sign it.
To wit, as a new clash over federal spending approaches on the Hill, GOP leaders are working to avoid a confrontation over Obamacare with a government funding proposal that makes repeal optional for the Senate. Under the proposal floated on Tuesday, the House would pass a continuing resolution to keep the nation running at sequester levels, along with an amendment to defund the health-care law, and pass the package to the Senate. The Senate can either approve the amendment or—far more likely—vote it down. But that’s the extent of it. Either way, a resolution goes to the president, and everyone avoids a government shutdown. Absolutist conservatives are furious about this—the right-wing Senate Conservatives Fund says House leaders have “chickened out and decided to fund a program that will destroy our country”—but there’s not much they can do about it. Obamacare is here to stay.
Which means that, for groups like the Tea Party Patriots, the Cruz demonstration—billed as the “Exempt America” rally—was mostly show: An exercise in symbolism, aimed at Congress, the White House, and the millions of Americans who voted—twice—for President Obama and support the health-care law.
But the crowd was less enthusiastic than you’d expect, especially given the hyperbole of activists and lawmakers like Michele Bachmann, who see this effort as nothing less than a fight for the soul of America. When Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert led the crowd in a call and response of anti-Obamacare myths—“Does Obamacare prevent the free exercise of your religious beliefs? Does Obamacare fund abortions? Does Obamacare provide taxpayer-funded health care for illegals?”—the “yesses” were pro forma; more bored high school pep rally than fighters for liberty.
In fact, of the men and women I spoke to at the rally, most were hopeful that Congress would defund Obamacare, but none were willing to hold their breath. “I’m prepared to sell my property and my business in order to protect my livelihood,” said Richie, an exterminator who came down from New Jersey to protest the law. “I can understand helping people who really need it,” he said, “but Obamacare is a huge intrusion. It’s the confiscation of people’s property.”
Linda, a housekeeper from Pittsburgh, was in the same boat—she wants Congress to repeal Obamacare, but doesn’t think it’s going to happen. “Politicians on both sides are scoundrels,” she said. “I’m just here so I can tell my grandchildren I tried to do something about what’s happening.”
Jim, an out-of-work electrical engineer from St. Louis, isn’t as hostile to politicians as a class, but he’s also down on the prospects for opposition to Obamacare. “I’m not sure it will get defunded. I mean, the leadership isn’t very supportive,” he said. As for what he thinks will happen with the Affordable Care Act? “I don’t know. I guess we’ll find out by October 1st,” he said, referring to when the health-care exchanges—where individuals can purchase insurance on a regulated market—go “online.”
At the risk of sounding like a liberal cliché, I’m struck by the circumstances of Richie, Linda, and Jim. If anything, Obamacare was designed with them in mind, people who—because of their age or income—have a hard time finding affordable health insurance. Indeed, I mentioned as much to Richie, who doesn’t have health insurance—he’s a few years from eligibility for Medicare, a program he supports—and relies on 24-hour clinics for his health care needs. “I’d rather pay for a mortgage than health insurance,” he said, explaining his situation. When I said the law was meant for people like him, he dismissed the idea that government could help. “When government funds things, they end up like the schools,” he said. “Not good.”
It’s tempting to pull a What’s the Matter with Kansas? and say that Richie is voting against his interests. But he’s not. He wants a country that leaves people to their own devices, and only intervenes for the most vulnerable. Regardless of whether the Affordable Care Act is in his material interests, it doesn’t fit his picture of America.
But, as most professional observers can tell you, Obamacare isn’t going to confiscate anyone’s property, and it isn’t going to lead to a dystopia of poor care and high costs. In states where implementing the law is priority, it’s working to lower costs on the individual market, and—with subsidies and the Medicaid expansion—is poised to help millions of uninsured Americans, including a good number of Republicans.
What happens when these people discover the law isn’t going to ruin their lives? What happens when it helps them? Will the GOP shift gears, and become a defender of the Obamacare status quo (“Get your government hands off of my Medicare,” and such)? Or will it be stuck in limbo, unable to attack the law—for fear of alienating voters—but forced to call for its repeal, to satisfy a still-active minority of anti-government zealots?
We have three years before the next presidential election, and depending on the dynamics of the Republican primary—which will almost certainly include Ted Cruz, and others like him—it’s then we’ll see an answer, or something that looks like one.