What Will Republicans Do if Obamacare Turns Out OK?

Ramesh Ponnuru has a long piece at National Review imploring conservatives to come up with a health-care plan they can swiftly put in place when Obamacare inevitably collapses under the weight of its disastrous big-government delusions. Though I disagree with almost every point Ponnuru makes along the way, from his analysis of what will happen with Obamacare to his recommendations of what a conservative health-insurance system should look like (the fact that anyone, even a free-market dogmatist, thinks catastrophic coverage plus high-risk pools would work out great is just incredible), I'll give him credit for trying to get his ideological brethren to come up with a proposal to solve what they themselves keep saying is a terrible problem. But alas, his effort is doomed to fail. Why? Because when it comes to health care, conservatives just don't care. I'll elaborate in a moment, but here's the crux of Ponnuru's argument:

Opponents of Obamacare should plan instead for the likelihood that in its first years of full operation the law will fail in undramatic and unspectacular ways. Premium increases, cost overruns, and the like may keep the law from becoming popular, but they will not prompt the third of the public that supports it to switch sides, or even get its many soft opponents fired up about it. Meanwhile, the administration will spend millions of taxpayer dollars to advertise the law's benefits. The law's dogged defenders will explain away all the disappointing developments, and the polls, as the result of continuing opposition in red states. A few conservative lawmakers have speculated that the law will crash so badly that the Democrats will themselves demand repeal in the next couple of years. That is not the way to bet.

Republicans' confidence that Obamacare will collapse has contributed to their lassitude in coming up with an alternative. It is a perverse complacency. If the program were going to collapse in the next three years, it would be all the more important for Republicans to build the case for a replacement for it. We can be sure that the Left would respond to any such collapse by making the case for a "single payer" program in which the federal government directly provides everyone insurance.

The biggest problem with this kind of appeal is that he will never, ever get anything beyond a tiny number of Republicans to invest any effort in coming up with a health-care plan. That would involve understanding a complex topic, weighing competing values and considerations against one another, and eventually getting behind something that will be something of a compromise. And let me say it again: They. Just. Don't. Care.

That isn't to say there are no conservatives who care about health care, because there are a few (like the folks at the Heritage Foundation who came up with the individual mandate!). But they are few and far between on the right. Your typical Republican, on the other hand, cares deeply about issues like taxes and defense policy, and works hard to understand them and come up with ideas for where they should go in the future. But had President Obama not passed health-care reform, they would have been perfectly happy to let the status quo continue indefinitely. They donned their fervent opposition to Obamacare like a new jacket, for reasons of politics, not policy. Sure, it was in many ways a conservative plan, much of whose complexity comes from the fact that it works to expand coverage within the private market. But it was big and important, and it was Obama, and it was a way to articulate their anti-government philosophy, and so they got fired up about it. But it isn't because health-care policy is something they're passionate about. Republicans care about taxes whether or not at the moment we happen to be having a big public debate about taxes. But if we weren't debating health care, they wouldn't be staying up nights coming up with interesting solutions to health-care problems, because it just isn't their thing.

Ponnuru doesn't allow for the possibility that Obamacare will turn out to be something less than a total failure, and he says that conservatives all believe the same thing (though he does differ from some of his allies on whether it will collapse dramatically or simply limp miserably along). But let me suggest another possible scenario: It ends up working pretty well. It doesn't turn America into a health-care paradise, and there are some implementation problems here and there, and we still have to pay more for our system than other countries do. But people like the fact that their coverage is guaranteed, and the doomsaying turns out not to be borne out. Critically, the middle class and wealthy people who collectively hold political influence discover that their lives haven't really been changed all that much, except in some ways that are positive. And it becomes hard to get voters too angry about Obamacare.

What will Republicans do then, if the issue doesn't seem to have much political potency? Will they keep working to come up with new health-care proposals more in line with their values? Or will they move on to some other issues that seem to offer better opportunities to gain political advantage? If you think it's the former, you're dreaming.

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