In President Trump's early days, at various moments when he acted relatively conventionally, some pundits aiming for profundity would declare, "This is the day Trump became president." Given the modern social media age, it wasn't long before such pronouncements devolved into a running punchline. So, it is with a mix of facetiousness and seriousness that I argue that today is the day that Obamacare became the law of the land.
Now, obviously, the pedants out there will be sure to point out that it became law on March 23, 2010, when Obama signed it. They could also point to June 28, 2012, when Chief Justice John Roberts upheld it as constitutional. Or on January 1, 2014, when its major coverage provisions went into effect. But, even through all of that, there was a constant cloud hanging over Obamacare. It's been unpopular; it's rollout was disastrous; it's brought higher premiums, fewer choices, and more restrictive coverage networks; and one of the two major political parties was consistently arguing for its repeal.
Social welfare programs, such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, were truly enshrined once they were embraced by both parties. Obamacare was unique in that not only was it a massive piece of legislation passed on a straight party line vote, but that the opposition was fierce and persistent. In theory, Obamacare was always on fragile ground, only one election away from extinction.
On Wednesday, however, a Republican-controlled Senate could not muster together a majority to repeal the bill. There will be a lot of talk about how Republicans couldn't achieve full repeal without a 60-vote filibuster proof majority, because there were limits to what they could do through reconciliation. But parliamentary procedure was a secondary and much less important issue here. As the vote has demonstrated, there were not 50 Republicans who were willing to repeal Obamacare. Especially cynical were the six Republicans who voted for repeal in 2015, when they knew that President Obama was going to veto it, but now that it actually had a chance of becoming law, ran away from the identical bill. Before, they had the best of both worlds. They could criticize Obamacare and argue they voted to repeal it, but Obama's veto would save them from ever having to explain their decision to critics.
Back when it seemed the House healthcare bill had died, I argued that the Republican failure to repeal Obamacare was the biggest broken promise in American history. My reasoning was that it was not the promise of one individual during one campaign, but the vow of Republican politicians running at every level of elected office for four election cycles. After today, there is no reason to believe that Republicans will ever repeal Obamacare, no matter how much power they gain.
Some will argue that as time went on, and Obamacare gained more beneficiaries, it became hard to repeal. But there is also reason to doubt whether Republicans ever really meant what they said about repeal in the first place. In a revealing interview with Elaina Plott, former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, now safely ensconced at an investment firm, conceeds that he never really believed all the repeal talk that he was spouting. However, Republicans wouldn't admit that they couldn't actually repeal Obamacare as they were all too eager to exploit conservative opposition to the law for electoral advantage. "[I]f you've got that anger working for you, you're gonna let it be," he said.
Sure, there is still talk of a "skinny" repeal of Obamacare, which in a bygone era when Republicans were out of power may have meant a one-line bill that would fully repeal the law. But as currently being discussed, it would trim around the edges rather than come close to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's pledge to undo Obamacare "root and branch."
The demise of the 7-year promise to repeal Obamacare is just the latest twist of the knife that Republicans have delivered to advocates of limited government. It's a reminder that for all the shouting, the United States only really has one party: the party of big government. Democrats expand government when they're in power, and Republicans cry foul when they're in the opposition. But when Republicans gain power, they either expand government in their own way (as President Bush did with the Medicare prescription drug bill and No Child Left Behind federal education power grab) or merely preserve Democrats' gains until Democrats can regain enough power to expand government some more. For a brief moment, there was some possibility that the Tea Party movement could break this cycle, and get the Republican Party to embrace a more limited government approach. But as it turned out, it didn't break the cycle. It was just part of the long-term trend of Republicans talking a big game about cutting big government when they lack the power to do so.