The Republican shift away from "repeal and replace" rhetoric on Obamacare may not signal the change in actual policy that some Democrats assume.
In recent months, Democratic partisans have hailed the transition in GOP messaging as proof that the Affordable Care Act is not as toxic to their side as previously assumed and may even begin presenting problems for the law's opponents.
But Republican operatives responsible for guiding 2014 strategy contend that the party remains as committed as ever to opposing President Obama's health care overhaul, both on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail. Instead, they say that the "repeal and replace" line has outlived its usefulness.
“This is a natural progression as the debate has hardened,” a Republican ad maker told the Washington Examiner. “We are now fighting well across the center line. The entire right half of the country is galvanized against Obamacare. We are now working to pick off people who are not ideologically opposed to it but who believe it has failed.”
Here are the three factors driving the Republicans’ shift in Obamacare messaging, according to interviews with Republican strategists:
Like it or not, Obamacare is no longer theoretical
The implementation of the Affordable Care Act as been underway for more than a year, and as far as Americans are concerned, it is the health care system now.
Politically speaking, that’s fine with Republicans, because their polling data shows that voters are dealing with a whole new set of problems and that have made them very unhappy with the law.
But the data also shows that voters want politicians to tell them how they plan to fix these new problems. Republicans say that Democrats have misread this hunger for “fixes” as a sign that opposing the law has become more problematic.
In fact, one GOP strategist said, among the reasons “repeal and replace” is now such bad messaging is because voters don't want to be told that they have to suffer under law for another three years, at which time their problems might or might not be remedied, depending on who is elected to succeed Obama in 2016.
“People are in the law, in the midst of it because it was passed, so this is the reality that they’re dealing with. How are you going to fix it in a way that works?” the strategist said. “Being told that you have to wait to 2017 to effectively deal with this — it’s not a solution to them.”
The shutdown showed Democrats are wedded to the law
An overlooked aspect of last October's government shutdown was that it convinced voters that Obama and congressional Democrats were never going repeal Obamacare.
The shutdown was sparked by a small cadre of Republicans who demanded the defunding of the law as a condition for approving money to operate the rest of the government. Democrats wouldn't budge and Republicans backed down after their party's approval ratings tanked and threatened the GOP's House majority.
When a Republican says he or she wants to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, the conservative base gets excited. But the average, Obamacare-opposing voter that the GOP is targeting in swing districts and states, in its bid to strengthen its House majority and win control of the Senate, doesn’t find the message credible.
'Repeal' suggests that Republicans favor the pre-Obamacare health care system
Before Obamacare was implemented, repealing and replacing Obamacare polled decently, because it suggested that Republicans favored health care reform, just not the president’s plan, and that mirrored the opinion of a majority of Americans.
Over time, however, the term “repeal” has become identified negatively as a partisan Republican talking point that leaves voters with the impression that the GOP wants to move the country from one disliked health care system (Obamacare) to another disliked system (pre-Obamacare.)
As far as a broad cross-section of Americans are concerned, their country’s health care system is still in dire need of reform. That is why Republicans in the months leading up to the 2014 elections, and beyond, are likely to message their opposition to Obamacare in positive, reform-minded language like “starting over.”
This friendlier rhetoric has begun to appear in some GOP television ads, but Republicans say it hardly equals a party in retreat on this issue.
“We are going to be talking about Obamacare; we are just fine-tuning our message,” one Republican advisor said.
Meanwhile, House Republicans say they have not abandoned their effort to produce a consensus health care plan that would serve as the party's alternative to Obamacare. Deep skepticism among GOP members remains that the effort will succeed, and many predict the party will have to settle on a set of reform principles that would serve as the party's blueprint for the health care policy it would pursue in the next Congress.
But members and senior aides say they have not pulled the plug on their goal of bringing a comprehensive set of health care bills to the floor before the election.
“We're looking at a number of options,” House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, said late last week.