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How Republicans Became Accidental Champions of Obamacare

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Yes, it is awfully rich that Republicans and conservative commentators, after doing their utmost to undermine the Affordable Care Act these past few years, are now carping about the serious flaws in the Web sites set up to process applications for health insurance coverage. While the administration bears responsibility for the technological problems, there is no question that odds for success would have been greater if it had not been denied the funding it needed to set up such a complex new system, if it had not had to handle the new insurance exchanges in so many states that refused to build their own, and if it had not had to delay stages of the exchange construction to avoid political opposition. Then there’s the larger fact that the administration went with such a complex approach to expanding coverage precisely because of the political (and industry) opposition to the far simpler solution of Medicare-for-all single-payer coverage.

But there’s another dynamic in the Republican agita over the slip-shod Web site that seems to be going somewhat underappreciated. Here is House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, as he announced that he is convening a hearing on Thursday to scrutinize the problems:

Upton, a St. Joseph Republican, is demanding to know why the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—which had three years following enactment of the Affordable Care Act to develop the system to sign people up for coverage—has been beset by glitches despite assurances before the launch date it would be ready to go.

He has called for a congressional committee hearing on the matter for Thursday. No witnesses have yet been announced for the hearing, which is titled "Implementation Failures: Didn't Know or Didn't Disclose."

"Administration officials repeatedly testified everything was on track, but the broad technological failures reveal that was not the case," said Upton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has legislative oversight authority for the department. "Either the administration was not ready for launch, or it was not up to the job."

Generally, holding a hearing demanding to know why a new program isn’t functioning better implies that…you want it to function. Until now, Republicans have managed to oppose Obamacare totally, to undermine its implementation left and right while casting symbolic votes for repeal and, just recently, engaging in an immensely costly charade to press for the “defunding” of the law.

But now that the law is actually going into effect, seizing on its deficiencies takes on a different aspect: It means, at some basic level, accepting the goals of the law as worth achieving. Now, Republicans will say that by highlighting implementation flaws they are simply exposing its inherent unworkability, but I’m not sure that pose will hold up in their new mode of inspector general. Administration officials will come in for questioning and Republicans will demand to know: How many people are signing up for coverage? When will the site be working better? What are you doing to fix it? Unspoken in all of those questions is something that Republicans have simply shut out of their assault on Obamacare until now: That there are people out there, millions of them, who do not have coverage and will be helped by the law if it can be made to function properly.

That, all along, has been the hollow core at the middle of the Republican critique, the fundamental refusal to acknowledge that basic need across the country and propose a serious alternative to meeting it. As many others have noted, Republicans and conservatives (other than a few not particularly vociferous policy wonks who now say they are rooting for Obamacare because it beats the alternative and that guy in Massachusetts who provided the model for the ACA) have never had developed a serious plan for this problem because so many of them do not see it as a problem. That they have now shifted toward seizing on the kinks in Obamacare should for this reason be taken as a sign of progress. Despite themselves and without fully realizing it, Republicans are perilously on the verge of becoming advocates for expanded health care coverage.