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The Right's Latest Scheme to Sabotage Obamacare

It was one thing when Obamcare critics started fighting attempts to educate people about the law's insurance options—warning sports leagues not to promote the new benefits, for example, or criticzing states undertaking outreach efforts of their own. Now some conservatives are taking it a step farther. They're launching campaigns designed to discourage young people from using the law to get insurance. Via David Morgan of Reuters:

FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, a conservative issue group financed by billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, known for funding conservative causes, are planning separate media and grassroots campaigns aimed at adults in their 20s and 30s - the very people Obama needs to have sign up for healthcare coverage in new online insurance exchanges if his reforms are to succeed.

"We're trying to make it socially acceptable to skip the exchange," said Dean Clancy, vice president for public policy at FreedomWorks, which boasts 6 million supporters. The group is designing a symbolic "Obamacare card" that college students can burn during campus protests.

Brian Beutler is aghast. So is Kevin Drum: "What's next? A campaign to get people to skip wearing seat belts? To skip using baby seats in cars?" Drum also wants to know whether FreedomWorks "plans to help out the first person who takes them up on this and then contracts leukemia." A good quesiton, that.

Of course, Obamacare critics will justify these steps if you ask them. Obamacare will wreack such havoc, and so violates American concepts of liberty and freedom, that extreme measures to undermine it are worthwhile. And this thinking is not limited to rabble-rousing groups like FreedomWorks. Leaders of the Republican Party are now threatening to shut down the government if Obama doesn't agree to defund the health care law. It's the same basic premise.

If you're among those people who agrees about the inherent malevolence of Obamacare, then this might all seem very reasonable. (Hey, they burned draft cards to protest the Vietnam War—and Obamacare is just as awful!) But if you don't see things that way, you might be wondering if this is the way opposition parties and movements typically act when a law they don't like is about to take effect. The answer is no. Democrats certainly didn't respond this way to the Medicare drug benefit—a point made here previously and more recently by Norm Ornstein, from the American Enterprise Institute, who knows as much about congressional history as anybody in Washington. He writes in National Journal:

The clear comparison is the Medicare prescription drug plan. When it passed Congress in 2003, Democrats had many reasons to be furious. The initial partnership between President Bush and Sen. Edward Kennedy had resulted in an admirably bipartisan bill—it passed the Senate with 74 votes. Republicans then pulled a bait and switch, taking out all of the provisions that Kennedy had put in to bring along Senate Democrats, jamming the resulting bill through the House in a three-hour late-night vote marathon that blatantly violated House rules and included something close to outright bribery on the House floor, and then passing the bill through the Senate with just 54 votes—while along the way excluding the duly elected conferees, Tom Daschle (the Democratic leader!) and Jay Rockefeller, from the conference committee deliberations.

The implementation of that bill was a huge challenge, and had many rocky moments. It required educating millions of seniors, most not computer-literate, about the often complicated choices they had to create or change their prescription coverage. Imagine if Democrats had gone all out to block or disrupt the implementation—using filibusters to deny funding, sending threatening letters to companies or outside interests who mobilized to educate Medicare recipients, putting on major campaigns to convince seniors that this was a plot to deny them Medicare, comparing it to the ill-fated Medicare reform plan that passed in 1989 and, after a revolt by seniors, was repealed the next year.

Almost certainly, Democrats could have tarnished one of George W. Bush's signature achievements, causing Republicans major heartburn in the 2004 presidential and congressional elections—and in the process hurting millions of Medicare recipients and their families. Instead, Democrats worked with Republicans, and with Mark McClellan, the Bush administration official in charge of implementation, to smooth out the process and make it work—and it has been a smashing success.

One more thing: Young and healthy people frequently decide against getting health insurance because they figure they are unlikely to face high medical bills. And they are right. The odds are in their favor. But some of them will get sick. Some will end up in accidents. And when they show up at the hospital, they'll get at least some of the care they need, forcing everybody else to pick up the tab. One basic idea behind the individual mandate, and the reason that people like Mitt Romney used to support it, is that it forces people to take more responsibility for their own, future medical expenses.

We can debate honestly, and constructively, whether Obamacare gets the prices and penalties for this responsiblity right—and, if not, whether those should be adjusted. But the basic idea that Republican leaders are protesting so intensely is one that you would expect the defenders of "personal responsiblity" to support—and one, until recently, many of them did support. It's enough to make you wonder how much of this opposition is about Obamacare, and how much is about the guy who signed it into law.

Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor at the New Republic. Follow him on twitter @CitizenCohn