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Where Does Obamacare Leave Millennials?

The ACA's early glitches may provide an opening, but Republicans still aren't investing in practical reforms.

The Obamacare rollout has been a disaster. In sharp contrast to the devastating technological effectiveness of President Obama’s 2012 campaign, HealthCare.gov has become the butt of jokes not just from Republicans, but also from supporters like Jon Stewart and The New Yorker. Meanwhile, it has become excruciatingly clear that the very structure of the law is punishing large swaths of the President’s own demographic base—the young. As David Frum observes:

The ACA was ingeniously designed to deliver benefits to Democratic constituencies and impose costs on Republican ones. The big surprise in the ACA rollout is that this design is going awry. It’s not only plutocrats and one-percenters who will find themselves worse off; not only the comparatively affluent retirees enrolled in Medicare Plus programs. Self-employed professionals who earn too much to qualify for ACA subsidies will soon discover what I have discovered: They are paying more for a worse product.

Obamacare offloads the cost of providing insurance substantially below market price to older consumers by frontloading its costs onto the self-employed and already financially-squeezed millennial generation. In fact, it does this by design. But while this unhealthy arrangement might warm Obamacare’s “losers” to the GOP’s critique of the law (or even dissuade them from signing up for insurance), it isn’t going to upend party dynamics. The GOP needs to have a better alternative on offer than what Democrats are proposing, and the credibility to have its alternative taken seriously. Republicans have neither. What is more, young people appear to have noticed, given that 51 percent of them still hold a positive opinion of Obamacare.

Start with the lack of a better alternative. While anyone who watched Ted Cruz’s epic filibuster knows very well that the GOP has strong feelings about health care, it lacks a consensus around reform. This is not to say that no plans exist: Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, for instance, has offered up an interesting if overlooked proposal. Conservative wonks have outlined numerous approaches. But the party itself has not endorsed or officially put forth anything approaching a competing plan. Since Congressional Republicans failed to participate in the legislative process that produced Obamacare in the first place, that’s a problem.

Given the understandable economic anxiety of young people, many of whom have yet to feel the effects of “rate shock” because the law also allows them to remain on their parents’ plans until the age of 26, the idea of turning to a party that would take away even a temporary life raft, with no constructive alternative, is unacceptable to them. But even if the GOP introduced a bill that would really address the problem of rising health care costs, and give every young person the opportunity to afford a solid insurance plan, and ran on it starting tomorrow, it wouldn’t make much of a difference. The GOP would not be trusted to make good on such an offer by most Americans generally, or by young people in particular.

Let us not forget that a few weeks ago, the GOP stood at its lowest approval rating in the history of the Gallup poll, and that post-shutdown anger may have motivated voters in Virginia to elect Terry McAuliffe over Ken Cuccinelli. The backlash will probably ebb by next year, but that presumes that the more belligerent forces within the GOP won’t try to reproduce this unpleasant episode in the next CR battle, once more plunging the GOP’s numbers into the depths of the abyss. With young people, their numbers are already there, for a few key reasons.

First of all, the GOP is madly, impossibly out of touch with the next generation on social issues (which many of them actually prioritize over economic concerns). Millennials overwhelmingly support gay marriage, for instance, whereas the GOP still stands in thrall to a section of the electorate that is literally dying off, as George Will puts it. This is symptomatic of a much larger disconnect between Republicans and young people, as many are simply ambivalent about religion. Fully 25 percent of millennials have no religious affiliation at all, according to a Gospel Coalition poll taken last year, and 62 percent view Christianity as excessively judgmental. Unsurprisingly, this translates into more liberal social views—6 in 10 young people favor at least some legal means to get an abortion, according to the same poll, for instance. Social conservatives might rightly point out that young people have the wrong impression, but they will have difficulty being heard when one of their standard bearers insists that rape can’t result in pregnancy.

What’s more, the GOP’s economic agenda, which ought to be seen as both realistic and aspirational, is too often pushed by its activist exponents as an opportunity to punish “freeloaders” and even their own offspring. This odd sentiment was documented by the sociologist Theda Skocpol:

Some of those “people who don’t work” are the young. Deficit hawks on the think tank circuit like to talk about ballooning government spending on Social Security and Medicare—programs that benefit the elderly—as “generational theft.” But the Tea Party rank and file, 70 percent to 75 percent of whom are over 45, are concerned about a very different generational struggle. This is a revolt of the grandparents’ generation—at least the conservative grandparents—and they are worried the feckless youth are taking over the country and emptying the state’s coffers. These young “freeloaders” include the Tea Partiers’ own relatives.

“Charles” told the researchers, “My grandson, he’s 14 and he asked, ‘Why should I work, why can’t I just get free money?”’ “Nancy” complained about a nephew who had “been on welfare his whole life.” “The conditions for young adults to establish themselves have changed radically,” Ms. Skocpol told me. “It is harder for young adults. They may live at home longer. And that manifests itself in ways that are easy to condemn morally. The older generation is having a little trouble understanding what is happening to their children and especially grandchildren.”

It is simply too easy for young people to look at the GOP and see reactionary baby boomers operating out of a misguided nostalgia, decrying federal spending while yelling at the government to get its hands off their Medicare. These flaws might be easily dismissed, even by young voters, if the party had a record of healthy reform. But as far as young people are concerned, Republicans are directly responsible for our current economic woes.

Kristen Soltis Anderson at the Winston Group has been described as “the Republican Party’s leading millennial pollster.” Her report, issued under the aegis of the College Republican National Committee (CRNC) earlier this year, described the problems Republicans face with young people and is worth a second look. See page 32 of the report, where Anderson shows that 51 percent of young people blame the Great Recession on Republican economic policies, while 55 percent blame it on (wait for it) the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obamacare’s early failures will only get Republicans so far. To quote Anderson’s report:

For those respondents who said they approved of the job Obama had been doing as president, the number one word they used? ‘Trying.’ He was trying. Young voters were disappointed in Obama’s performance, but gave him credit for attempting to improve the situation. In our focus groups, many respondents strongly defended President Obama even while acknowledging the mediocrity of the last four years.

And the Republicans? Young people simply don’t trust them. In fact, despite agreeing with the GOP that raising taxes on small businesses is detrimental, young people still trust Democrats more than Republicans to make it easier to start businesses and get jobs. Why? To quote Anderson again:

In our focus group of young aspiring entrepreneurs who voted for Obama, respondents noted that Republicans were the more “pro-business” party. Yet  when asked why they voted Democratic despite their desire to start a business  themselves, the responses were clear: “I don’t think [the Republicans] would  make it easier for small businesses.” “A corporation, maybe, absolutely. A small business?” “The Republican Party would make it really easy to start a business and have a successful business if you already have that capital in your bank account, because you’re not losing that money. But we’re all sitting on our own  various debts and our student loans, and the Republican Party isn’t helping us with any of that.”

Put this together, and you get a bleak picture: Young people believe that while President Obama’s policies (Obamacare chief among them) might be mediocre or worse than nothing, they give the president credit for trying to make things better. Whereas they hold the GOP responsible for a recession that has cost many of them the careers they were raised to expect, a view apparently confirmed by a party that seems to openly favor big companies and the already rich. Obamacare’s glitches—and cancellation notices—however off-putting, won’t transform this perception. The Affordable Care Act might be on the whole bad for the young and healthy, but until Republicans present a unified alternative in good faith, and engage in practical reforms, they will remain shut out of the conversation.

Mytheos Holt is an associate policy analyst at the R Street Institute, and communications strategist at Mair Strategies.



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