Obamacare Fades Right on Schedule

Courtesy of Bloomberg News’ Heidi Przybyla, we learn that Obamacare is fading as a campaign issue.
Republicans really haven’t set the stage for much more than symbolic votes.

Sorry, this is going to be a "told you so" post. Fair warning?

For a while now, I've been saying three things about the future of the Affordable Care Act. One, it wouldn't turn out to be a major factor in the 2014 election cycle. Two, it would remain unpopular -- or at least poll badly -- for the foreseeable future. And three, the effort to repeal it is essentially dead.

It's still quite unpopular, and efforts to repeal it still go nowhere (and Republican politicians are far away from producing and agreeing on the oft-promised "replace" plan). Now, courtesy of Bloomberg News's Heidi Przybyla, we learn that Obamacare is fading as a campaign issue. It hasn't disappeared entirely. But after totally dominating the ad landscape in the spring, Obamacare has dropped to just another issue in Republican ads. Health-care has also plummeted in polling on issues important to voters in this cycle. And as Greg Sargent has been documenting, Republican candidates have shifted to a more nuanced position -- they still almost all say they support repeal, but they weasel around the idea that various ACA programs and benefits will be included in that supposed repeal.

Sargent argues that Republicans may well claim that Obamacare was the main reason for their (almost certain) midterm gains anyway. He's probably right, and it's fair to say that repeal remains a key Republican promise, even if it's a little more weaselly (or perhaps the word is "nuanced") than it once was. And we know that politicians do try to keep their promises.

However, full repeal remains not a serious possibility in the upcoming 114th Congress no matter how big a landslide Republicans win, given the certain veto from the White House. And as usual, Republicans really haven't set the stage for much more than symbolic votes. It's not just the lack of a "replace" plan; it's the lack of any viable compromise proposals that might alter the law in their favor. At best, they might chip away at the law's funding, but it's unlikely that they'll do much more than that. Indeed, symbolic votes and getting rid of some of the costs (such as the medical-device tax) is probably what will happen in 2017 even if Republicans win unified control by then.

In some ways, this might be a win-win solution. To the extent that the campaign against Obamacare is symbolic, not substantive, then another series of symbolic votes might be sufficient to satisfy Republican constituents. And that wouldn't have the unfortunate (for Republican politicians) effect of taking away actual benefits from real voters.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.