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Watching the Basket

December 5, 2013

With the wry irreverence for which his creator was known, Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson advised us to “put all your eggs in the one basket and – WATCH THAT BASKET.” Republicans have taken that advice to heart.

The 113th Congress is on the verge of setting a record as the least productive Congressional session in the history of the country. Next to this, the “do-nothing Congress” that handed Harry Truman his historic come-from-behind victory in 1948 was a hive of activity.

Some lemonade-from-lemons conservatives have tried to claim success in this unprecedented failure. Some are saying that, as small-government conservatives, they prefer fewer laws to more laws. But we know from simple observation that this isn’t true. When Republicans took charge in Wisconsin, or Virginia, or Pennsylvania, and any other place, they passed all kinds of laws: anti-abortion laws, voter suppression laws, union-busting laws, laws cutting social programs for the needy, and laws cutting taxes for the needless.

What’s really going on here is not conservative antipathy to passing laws. What’s really going on here is that Republicans are convinced that they don’t need to pass laws – not even laws they support. They think they don’t need to pass laws because they have Obamacare, to which they want to give their full attention. The accusation that President Obama is engaging Iran in nuclear weapons talks to distract attention from Obamacare is all the proof we need of a Republican one-track mind.

Four different House committees held Obamacare hearings on Tuesday – not because they want it to work, but because they are sure it will fail, that it has already failed, and that their surest route to the presidency and bicameral supermajorities is to talk all about Obamacare, only about Obamacare and nothing but Obamacare. Watch that basket!

There is some possibility that the Republicans are right, that they can make Obamacare fail. Some of the legal challenges against Obamacare could unravel the whole thing. I’m not all that concerned about claims by newly religious employers who never minded offering their employees health insurance options that covered birth control until Obamacare told them they had to offer their employees health insurance options that cover birth control. Our Supreme Court majority may in fact be so unprincipled as to buy that argument – opening the door, for instance, for employers to refuse to comply with anti-disrimination laws that contradict their religious beliefs. But that ruling wouldn’t undo Obamacare.

I’m more worried about the challenges that attack the allowance of premium subsidies to people who buy insurance on the federal exchanges. For whatever reason, the law provides for subsidies only for those who buy insurance on state exchanges. It would make no sense for the availability of subsidies to turn on the distinction between federal and state exchanges, and courts aren’t supposed to read laws in a way that makes no sense. But as I say, our Supreme Court majority is more partisan than principled, and a ruling striking down subsidies for those in the 36 states that refused to set up their own exchanges would be devastating to Obamacare.

But even though there is some possibility that the Republicans will be right and Obamacare will fail, I think there is much greater possibility that Republicans will be wrong and Obamacare will succeed. The latest reports indicate that tens of thousands of people are signing up for Obamacare insurance policies every day, now that the federal web site has been attended to by a competent tech manager. As Obamacare stacks up successes, and reality starts to shine through the ideological fog, the program is likely to become significantly more popular.

Even if Obamacare is not an unqualified success, the public may well turn against the Republicans who, after all, have no health care plan to replace Obamacare. The 2014 elections could be very interesting, because Republicans have no Plan B. If all-Obamacare-all-the-time doesn’t work out for them, they are leaving themselves no record of legislative accomplishments to run on – only a record of obstruction and high-risk games with the federal credit rating.

Let’s take Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as an example. Senator McConnell is running for a sixth term representing Kentucky. Interestingly, most of his election wins have been relatively close. In 2008, for instance, Senator McConnell beat Bruce Lunsford, who had never held elective office, by only 6 percent of the vote. John McCain beat Barack Obama in Kentucky that year by 16 percent of the vote.

In 2014, Senator McConnell’s likely Democratic opponent is Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Kentucky Secretary of State who won that position by a 21 percent margin in 2011. Recent polling has Secretary Grimes running statistically even with Senator McConnell for 2014.

Meanwhile, Kentucky’s Democratic Governor Steve Beshear (who lost the 1996 Senate race to Senator McConnell) is running a successful state implementation of Obamacare. As of November 22, more than 56,000 Kentuckians had signed up for insurance through the Kentucky exchange. Had Majority Leader McConnell had his way, there would be no Obamacare exchanges – and McConnell was willing to shut the federal government down to get his way.

Come November 2014, Senator McConnell may find that Kentuckians actually appreciate those who made affordable health insurance available more than they appreciate those who opposed affordable health care. And in this respect Kentucky may prove not to be unique.

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