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The Wall Street Journal Just Made a Very Important Pivot on Obamacare

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We know that GOP leaders are suddenly, tepidly, willing to allow minor, bipartisan improvements to Obamacare to clear the House of Representatives. But for the party’s shift away from an obstinance-only strategy to evolve into something more substantial—something that really undermines the repeal fantasy—influential voices within the conservative tent are going to have to pressure hardliners who still insist that Republicans must never expend a joule of constructive energy on the law. 

That's the subtext of my most recent article, and the timing couldn't be better because the Wall Street Journal editors picked today to attack the GOP members who are furious about party leaders doing anything at all to facilitate implementation of the law. 

[S]ome conservatives have become so politically disoriented by ObamaCare that preserving its mistakes is more important than helping Americans hurt by the law. The theory seems to be that "improving" ObamaCare will weaken the coalition for repeal and therefore the economic torture dials should be turned up to 11. If the law is more punitive and dysfunctional, more people will want to get rid of it in toto.

But the reality is that the law can't be repealed until President Obama leaves office in 2017. Patience is less a virtue than a necessity, and rooting for voters to be harmed is not a helpful electoral coping strategy. A better political strategy is to offer an agenda going into the 2014 election that addresses the damage ObamaCare is doing to the individual and small-business insurance markets until a larger fix is possible.

Very few conservatives have entirely given up on the idea that Obamacare might maybe, possibly, some day be repealable. But outside the Ted Cruz wing of the party, the vast majority have given up on the idea that the law can be repealed without a ready-to-go alternative in hand. And some of them—particularly those who are responsive to the wants and needs of business interests—have decided that in the meantime, they can't be the agents preventing Obamacare's coarser measures from being sanded down. 

Thus today's Journal editorial. The theory—and I think it's basically correct—is that Republicans will be more successful moving health policy in a conservative direction over time if they're willing to accept certain on-the-ground realities. But the corollary isn't just that repealing Obamacare won't be possible without an alternative at hand, but that an alternative will have to be implemented alongside Obamacare so that Obamacare can be phased out slowly. The conservative position is slowly shifting from repeal and replace, to replace and repeal. Much like you'd never tear down a structurally weak bridge without first building a sound one parallel to it, the right has awakened to the fact that Obamacare can't be scrapped on the basis of a promise to clean up the incredible mess sometime in the future. 

Now, I don't think that "replace and repeal" will ever happen, or at least I don't think it'll happen in a way that's distinguishable from simply modifying Obamacare. But count it as progress of a sort.