When the Affordable Care Act survived a slow and painful congressional debate to become law, Democrats knew they would have a rocky few years. But they reasoned that as the benefits started to kick in, Obamacare would become more popular.
In other words, people would learn to like the bill once they knew what was in it.
So far, however, it hasn’t panned out that way. Politico has reported that Democrats are actually fearful of the health care reform law as the 2014 elections approach. Certainly, Democrats who must appeal to reddish voters are keeping their distance.
Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the Democratic candidate in the South Carolina special congressional election, called Obamacare “extremely problematic” in her one debate with Republican romantic Mark Sanford. Sen. Max Baucus has called the law’s implementation a “train wreck” and decided to retire rather than face Montana’s voters as one of Obamacare’s main architects.
Part of the problem is that the costs are becoming as apparent as the benefits. Companies are shedding full-time employees, cutting workers’ hours, and turning to temps in anticipation of the new law. Other employers are dropping or reducing health coverage to avoid Obamacare’s strictures, a development the Congressional Budget Office now believes will impact 7 million people. These trends have been particularly pronounced in the restaurant industry.
Companies are even beginning to trim overall employee benefits. “Employer spending on benefits rose at the slowest pace on record in the first quarter, as companies began bracing for higher health costs with next year’s launch of ObamaCare,” reports Jed Graham in Investor’s Business Daily, concluding, “Total employee benefits provided outside of government jobs declined outright.”
Low-wage workers are among the hardest hit. Graham reports, “Total benefits in service occupations shrank 0.3% in Q1, the first decline in data going back to 2002.” There was a drop in benefits per employee.
Meanwhile, Republicans have continued to hold votes in the House on repealing Obamacare. Conservative senators sought to block funding for Obamacare implementation. Republican governors have balked at the state health insurance exchanges. Even when GOP governors have accepted the Medicaid expansion, Republican state legislators have resisted it. The party is no longer saddled with a presidential nominee with an Obamacare-like health care record.
A Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that Obamacare has just a 35 percent favorability rating, while a Fox News survey suggested 54 percent still want to repeal the law—right as the White House is rolling it out.
This isn’t altogether unprecedented. The Medicare Catastrophic Care Act of 1988 offered popular benefits for seniors: expanded coverage of hospital stays, more at-home care, and prescription drugs. Unlike Obamacare, it had genuinely bipartisan support.
But the costs proved deeply unpopular with the very people the law was intended to help. When then House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski held a meeting in his deep-blue district to inform elderly constituents of their new benefits, the oldsters ran him out of the room chanting “coward,” “recall,” and “impeach.” A woman threw herself on the hood of Rostenkowki’s car to prevent him from being whisked away, forcing the powerful Democrat to try to flee on foot.
The Medicare expansion was repealed three months later, by a Democratic-controlled Congress. The program had been signed into law by a Republican president—Ronald Reagan, no less—and George H.W. Bush signed its repeal.
Obamacare is a much more partisan issue, something that both helps and works against its ultimate reversal. But at least in the early stages, unintended consequences have hurt its public support. So too has the law’s complexity.
Washington Post policy blogger Sarah Kliff observed that ordinary people don’t even always notice Obamacare’s benefits. Even the dent the law will put in the number of uninsured Americans is small relative to the country’s population.
There is a strong case that Democrats should simply be patient, bank on Republican timidity, inertia, and bureaucratic fixes to Obamacare. And problems with the health care law’s implementation don’t have to lead to a less government-directed system. They could be blamed on the private sector, leading inexorably to something closer to single payer.
Just don’t expect that case to be persuasive to Democrats running in swing states or competitive congressional districts during next year’s midterm elections.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the newly released Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?