Why the 2012 GOPers Aren't Talking About Obamacare

Obamacare critics need not worry about Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney backing down from a repeal.

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After more than a year's worth of ferocious opposition, it might seem odd to ask, but here it goes: If Republicans capture the White House and the Senate, how hard will they push for a full repeal of Obamacare?

Sally C. Pipes, head of the conservative Pacific Research Institute, is worried by how much she's not hearing about Obamacare lately:

Amid the political jockeying leading up to this weekend's Republican primary in South Carolina, a funny thing has happened: The calls for repealing Obamacare have faded. During the recent Republican debate in New Hampshire, for instance, the president's signature law was mentioned just three times.

Republicans need to refocus. No single move by the next president could revitalize the country more effectively than a repeal of President Obama's health-care reforms.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on healthcare.]

I think Pipes's concerns are premature.

I've long had a hunch that, to some unquantifiable extent, opposition to Obamacare reached such a fever pitch because of animus toward Obama himself. If the "alien menace," as the American Spectator 's Quinn Hillyer delicately phrased it, returns to Chicago, the apocalyptic rhetoric will melt away.

Still, I think Obamacare's lack of salience lately might just be a function of the top GOP candidates—former Gov. Mitt Romney and former Speaker Newt Gingrich—sporting a mixed record on the healthcare issue.

There is the fact that former Sen. Rick Santorum, who said Romney's support of an Obamacare-like reform in Massachusetts is a disqualifying "scarlet letter," has failed to gain any traction in South Carolina. But for a variety of reasons—his support for the Medicare prescription drug law; his much-advertised communitarian sympathies; his Northeastern-ness not playing well in the South—Santorum is not a very sturdy vehicle for the libertarian case against Obamacare right now.

[ Read Scott Galupo: Mitt Romney Must Clarify Defense of Individual Mandate]

There are two big reasons why I think, once the dust of a presidential campaign clears, Republicans are going to feel emboldened enough to go after the healthcare law if it's upheld by the Supreme Court later this year.

  1. A President Romney or Gingrich, given each candidate's support for an individual mandate, is going to want to signal good faith toward Republican legislators on Capitol Hill. What better way to demonstrate conservative bona fides than to tackle Obamacare head-on? Besides, the heavy lift of dismantling the law is going to have to be done initially by Congress; our hypothetical Republican in the White House can painlessly sit and wait for a repeal bill to reach his desk.
  2. Obamacare's cost-containment prognosis is looking dicier all the time. The Atlantic's Megan McArdle has noted that, already, half of the law's purported deficit reduction will never materialize. And according to new Congressional Budget Office figures, about 20 years worth of Medicare experiments to bend the cost curve have little to show for them.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit]

This is critical. Obamacare supporters have worn the official Congressional Budget Office estimate of the Affordable Care Act's fiscal impact as a sort of fig leaf: If you repeal it, they say, you'll have to pay for it. But those numbers are squishy, at best. With evidence mounting that the law has a better chance of increasing the deficit, the case for repeal becomes a matter of fiscal prudence—right in the wheelhouse of a new Republican administration.

Personally, I'm in the middle on this issue. I support the goal of universal coverage. But I've thought all along that the Obama administration made an ungodly mess of things by trying to achieve that goal while maintaining revenue neutrality. Yes, they should be given credit for at least attempting to pay for such massive new spending.

But fiscal reality circa 2012 is a mean goddess.

Prediction: A bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act will be H.R. 1 in the next Congress.