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A Kinder, Gentler Push for Repeal?

House Republicans have postponed their vote on repealing the Affordable Care Act until next week, because of the Arizona shooting. And even when that debate resumes, Jennifer Haberkorn and Carrie Budoff Brown report in Politico today, the House Republicans will likely adopt a more measured tone. They won’t change their position on the issue itself. They remain committed to total repeal. But the Republican insiders that Haberkorn and Brown interviewed seem to think Republicans would talk in less dramatic and emotional terms, on the assumption that the country has less appetite for such rhetoric in the wake of the weekend's tragedy.

I have no idea whether those insiders are right. But if they are – and if Republicans focus more on actual policy details, as the insiders predict – I wonder whether the repeal movement will start to lose some of its political strength. By and large, the actual policies in the Affordable Care Act remain popular, in some cases very popular. People overwhelmingly support requirements that prohibit insurers from excluding people with pre-existing conditions or that offer consumers the right to appeal treatment denials. Small businesses appreciate tax credits to help buy coverage and seniors like extra money for prescription drugs. 

So why, then, is the bill not more popular now? Why do almost half of respondents in most polls say they want to repeal the measure, even though the number drops dramatically once people learn what’s actually in the bill? Part of the reason, I think, is the emotional, apocalyptic rhetoric some conservatives and Republicans have used to describe it. They’ve been arguing that the bill will do more than simply take some money out of Medicare or require people to get insurance -- features that voters, particularly the elderly, genuinely dislike. They've said it will impose socialism, bring on tyranny, and create death panels to deny care to people deemed less worthwhile. And while not all Republicans are saying these things, obviously, neither the party's leaders nor its elder statesmen have disavowed the rhetoric. On the contrary, they have in many cases adopted it as their own.

Whatever the overall impact of these attacks, they have whipped the Republican base into a frenzy over health care reform. And that frenzy, amplified through the right-wing noise machine, has in turn helped to prop up the repeal movement. To be clear, I genuinely hope Republicans do alter their rhetoric, not least because they have been so blatantly dishonest about what the Affordable Care Act actually does. But if they do change, I suspect they’ll find their cause loses at least a little bit of its urgency and maybe quite a lot.