Having over-organized its base on Obamacare, the Republican Party now finds itself in a bind: The base is calling its tab. Three years of promising to repeal-and-replace the measure has seen no repeal and few proposals for replacements, and time for either is just about up.
We've reported numerous times on the party's scramble to figure out how to make good on its longstanding promise to rescind the unpopular program (here's one from Tuesday; another from Monday). The broad strokes of the existing plan are to use the upcoming debate over passing a government funding bill as an opportunity to defund or delay parts of the Affordable Care Act or, barring that, the need to raise the debt limit over the next few weeks. Barring either of those things — the latter of which President Obama has flatly rejected — the Obamacare-mandated exchanges open on October 1 and the policy itself goes into full swing at the start of 2014. Party leaders have pushed away a number of proposals from rebellious members aimed at linking the two — most recently from Sen. David Vitter — recognizing that the party doesn't have much leverage and that the risk to the party's reputation is huge. A government shutdown stemming from a futile attempt to defund Obamacare would be blamed on Republicans, and not in a positive way.
For the activist base of the party, there is understandable frustration. After more than three dozen futile House votes to trim or gut the healthcare plan (and with another on the horizon), conservative Republicans rallied in Washington last week, demanding that the party take some sort of action during the budget fight. As the Daily Caller put it, the activists wanted the party to "not just keep going through the motions to appease the conservative base."
Which is precisely what the party has been doing. At the Daily Beast, Jamelle Bouie explains how the subject of Obamacare has become a massive organizing and fundraising tool for conservative groups that are putting pressure on Congress.
Heritage Action for America—the political arm of the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank—has a standing website devoted to collecting donations. “Conservatives in Congress have proposed using the fight over a key budget bill, called the continuing resolution, to strip funding from this law. But Establishment Republicans and special interests in Washington are resisting this plan,” it explains. But there’s no reason to panic: “You can ensure Obamacare is defunded,” it asserts. All it takes is a small donation to Heritage. “Time is of the essence. Please donate now to ensure we have the resources to fight and win.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, this particular push had raised over $327,000, and it’s no stretch to assume that other, similar efforts have raised as much if not more cash.
The added sense of urgency that comes from the realization that time is running out is no doubt a boon for those organizing efforts. But it's completely fair for the base to wonder why nothing was done earlier.
Shortly after the bill was signed into law in 2010, calls to "repeal and replace" Obamacare reached an apex. (Above, Google searches for it over time.) The motto, which served the party well during the 2010 elections in which it retook the House, has proven to be fairly empty over time. It was always basically impossible for the same reason that it is now: the Senate and Obama won't sign off on any proposal to repeal it, and are unlikely to pass an effort to replace it. Any compromise, always an unlikely prospect, has been tainted by how severely the bill has been pilloried in the conservative press. The party offered a product it couldn't deliver, and kept taking payments for it. It's a Kickstarter gone bad, and now the base wants what it paid for.
As the graph above shows, the expression itself has dimmed in popularity, probably in no small part because the GOP would rather not revisit it. There have been repeated calls for a replacement bill, as promised, and repeatedly the party has come up empty. One partial proposal introduced by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor this spring was a flop, staunchly opposed by his own members who thought it might actually bolster Obamacare. On Wednesday, Roll Call reported that conservative members of the House were set to unveil their replacement proposal, offering few details. Roll Call reported almost exactly the same thing in August, down to using the same photo for the story. The replacement push, like the effort to repeal Obamacare, is stalled. (Update, 11:00 a.m.: This time, the House meant it. At a press conference Wednesday morning, the Republican Study Committee unveiled its replacement policy. Details are still sketchy.)
For Republican leaders, the strategy at this point seems to be one of keeping their eyes closed and wishing it were October. When it pledged to battle Obamacare tooth and nail, the party began the process of swallowing a very large pig, constrictor-like. It's currently suffering acute indigestion.