We’re not even halfway to the next presidential election cycle, and here we go again: Obamacare.
Forcing that derisive nickname down our throats, Republicans are pushing President Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievement as their primary political target in the new Congress, while Democrats are too scared to own it—leaving the American public scratching their heads and asking, “What next?”
The short answer is that in all probability, the Affordable Care Act isn’t going anywhere, but there’s a good chance that after a couple of years, it won’t be exactly the same ACA some of you love and others hate.
To recap: Democrats pretty much handed over Senate control to Republicans because, among other things, they couldn’t figure out how to come up with a solid health care message in 2014—when all they had to do was wrap it nicely into a coherent economic pitch. And in a not-so-surprising move less than three days after the November midterms, a conservative Supreme Court announced that it would be taking a look at the ACA yet again, this time on the question of federal subsidies for state exchanges.
Now, by design, you have a high court faking that it’s not political, when it’s really huddling with a GOP-dominated Congress that’s less interested in policymaking—and more interested in throwing up roadblocks to Obama’s health-coverage law.
Don’t worry, folks—the law isn’t going anywhere. Waste-of-time House hearings spent grilling once-unknown White House health care advisers like Jonathan Gruber are just drama to keep us confused during the ACA open-enrollment period. Republicans just get closer to splitting the difference with exhausted Democrats, and then keep winning more elections (keep your eye on the Kentucky and Louisiana gubernatorial races next year).
Expect the Supreme Court to nix subsidies while Congress obliterates Medicaid and the individual mandates. “That alone is enough to bring down the health care law,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) told Politico recently. “We’re going to continue to try to, one, repeal; two, strip out the worst parts of the law; and three, look to the courts.”
There’s one common theme: Cut that poor (black and brown) people, welfare-looking stuff, since, let’s face it, they aren’t our political constituency in the first place. Never mind that poor white people, most of whom vote Republican, need this stuff as much as the people of color who do.
But it’s a delicate political dance. Expanded Medicaid might be an easy target, but 7 in 10 Americans actually dig the government health care exchanges, according to Gallup—so long as it’s not called Obamacare. In a separate YouGov poll (pdf), 49 percent of folks say they want a repeal, but 42 percent want an ACA expansion or to leave it be, and 13 percent aren’t sure.
Republicans, then, will make sure they re-engineer the law in such a way that makes it appear as if they created a new and improved health care regime. That’s an eye to a future White House bid when millennial votes will come in handy, since the 18- to 34-year-old crowd prefers Grey Goose plans despite Bud Lite budgets. And Republicans have little choice—or they risk facing the biggest political insurrection their party has seen since its founding. They’ll say they destroyed Obamacare and finally answered the belligerent calls of the Tea Party. They’ll act as if they introduced a fresh, new health care system built on state-managed “grants” rather than the ill-named “subsidies,” protections for pre-existing conditions and insurance for your largely underemployed kids until they’re 26.
If those provisions already sound familiar, it’s because they’re already here, courtesy of President Obama. He will, of course, veto anything anti-ACA that Congress throws his way. But he can only veto so much without the risk of looking spectacularly unproductive while Republicans constantly dangle fiscal cliffs and government shutdowns in his face. In the end, a lonely president, pressed for meaning in his last two years, will take what he can get.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.