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Democrats, Don’t Repeat Obama’s Biggest Mistake

To save Obamacare from Republicans, the opposition party must heed the lesson of 2011's debt limit standoff.

Nicholas Kamm/Getty Images

Before last month, the lowest point of Barack Obama’s presidency was in mid-2011, when Republicans used the threat of defaulting on the national debt to extract policy ransoms from him and Democrats in Congress.

This is not an inflammatory, biased description of what Republicans did. It’s a paraphrase of something then–Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell admitted days after the debt limit standoff ended. “I think some of our members may have thought the default issue was a hostage you might take a chance at shooting,” he said. “Most of us didn’t think that. What we did learn is this—it’s a hostage that’s worth ransoming. And it focuses the Congress on something that must be done.”

The GOP’s reckless debt limit brinksmanship pulled Obama’s approval ratings down to about the lowest levels of his presidency. In the heat of the crisis, Senator Bernie Sanders even suggested a progressive Democrat should primary Obama in 2012. And in hindsight, it all happened because Obama acquiesced in advance to the Republican framing of the standoff.

In the early days of their House majority, Republicans set arbitrary terms for raising the debt limit that Obama was under no obligation to accept. With the so-called “Boehner Rule,” named after then–House Speaker John Boehner, Republicans insisted they would only increase the debt limit by as much as Obama agreed to cut in federal spending. Obama could have told House Republicans to stuff it—that he would not negotiate with hostage takers, especially over something as solemn as the validity of U.S. debt. He also could have rejected their terms, but countered with new ones: that the debt limit gets raised no matter what, but he’d happily use mutually agreeable legislation as a vehicle for increasing it.

Instead, he let the Republican terms stand basically unchallenged, and they mugged him.

We are still living through the repercussions of that horrible decision, but at least Obama learned from it. After August 2011, whenever Republicans tried to stage a crisis, Obama rejected their terms, and let the imperative for congressional action—to fund the government, for instance, or to raise the debt limit—drive Republicans into disarray. Eventually Democrats, along with a rump of establishment-minded Republicans, got done what needed to get done, without paying any ransoms.

Republicans reportedly are coalescing around a plan to streamline legislation that would defund the Affordable Care Act in two or three years’ time—creating a cliff, past which millions of Americans will fall back into the ranks of the uninsured. If this is true, it will be vital for Democrats to remember the lessons of 2011. Indeed, as Democrats transition into a national opposition party and attempt to save Obama’s signature achievement, it will be more important than ever not to repeat his original mistake.

If Republicans weren’t frightened by the consequences of repealing the Affordable Care Act, they’d make it effective immediately rather than creating a self-imposed deadline. But they’re scared—not only of kicking millions of people off of health insurance, but of the related, abstract damage they will do to themselves if they eliminate the ACA’s ironclad prohibition against discriminating against insurance customers with preexisting health conditions.

“Once you say that everybody should be covered, can’t be denied coverage because they are sick—which most Americans would agree with that—you put yourself in a box,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters last week. “Somebody’s got to work through this problem. If we’re going to accept the proposition that you can never be denied coverage because you’ve been sick, then somebody’s got to create a system where people participate.”

The most important step in solving a problem is reaching consensus on the existence and importance of addressing the problem itself. What’s most bedeviled liberals in their efforts to address the climate change crisis, for instance, hasn’t been intractable internal disputes over whether carbon taxes are better than cap-and-trade systems, but the abject refusal of conservatives to accept that climate change is worth doing anything about at all.

The same thing was true back in 2009 when Democrats embarked on health care reform. The problem to be solved was tens of millions of uninsured people who lacked the means to pay for health insurance, but Republicans largely rejected the premise altogether. Democrats thought it was critical to create a coverage guarantee, and Republicans did not.

Obamacare went about increasing coverage by expanding Medicaid for the very poor, and regulating and subsidizing individual insurance markets for the working and middle classes. But its most important legacy was creating a seedbed for the coverage guarantee Lindsey Graham was talking about. Republicans didn’t identify major pre-Obamacare coverage gaps as a crisis back in 2009, but they realize they will create a crisis if they reopen them.

And that is why Democrats should always heed the lesson of the debt limit standoff. If Republicans create a health insurance cliff three years into the future, Democrats can refuse to negotiate, or they can negotiate for mutually agreeable swaps, but it would be a huge error if they accepted the GOP’s terms and helped Republicans dismantle the consensus they’ve built—the one “most Americans would agree with”—that nobody can be denied health coverage in the U.S.

There’s nothing sacred about the specific architecture of Obamacare. It’s possible that Republicans, faced with a devastating health insurance cliff, will descend into disarray until a handful of them agree to extend the law basically as-is. If a future Congress can escape the health insurance cliff with farther-reaching bipartisan reforms that nevertheless preserve the coverage guarantee and expansion, there’s no reason Democrats shouldn’t consider them.

But that will only happen if Democrats refuse to be conscripted into a standoff on Republican terms. If they don’t, it will be 2011 all over again.