ACA Opposition Dynamics

There’s been a theme recently running through some liberal economic blogs about how the GOP ‘fears’ the successful implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which is why their efforts to defund the law through [effective] economic hostage-taking have become so desperate. Paul Krugman was the first person I saw that expressed the idea—though Ezra Klein followed up today with a similar piece. The logic goes as follows:

On one side, as Jonathan Cohn points out, inside the right-wing bubble it’s taken as gospel that Obamacare will be an utter, obvious disaster…

But if the right really believed this, it should be happy to let Obamacare come into existence, then collapse. The last thing Republicans should want is to let Democrats snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by provoking confrontations over the budget and the debt ceiling before the American people get to experience the nightmare of expanded insurance coverage.

In fact, politically the right is acting as if it fears that Obamacare will, in reality, be highly popular — that once the exchanges and the Medicaid expansion go into effect, people will decide that they like the new system, and strongly oppose efforts to reverse course.

Though I think the logic of that argument makes sense, I don’t think that’s actually what’s going on inside of the GOP. To give an example for why not, consider the inverse case: Paul Krugman has been quite confident since 2008 that excessive and over-eager deficit reduction will be an absolute disaster for the economy [and he has been largely vindicated]. I think asking why the GOP has been fighting tooth and nail against the Affordable Care Act (if they really believe it will be awful) is akin to asking why Paul Krugman has been fighting so avidly against excessive deficit reduction—if Krugman was so sure it was going to be a disaster, why not encourage deficit reduction so that it implodes in upon itself leading to a much more enlightened economic state where everyone supports deficit spending in a recession when interest rates are at the zero lower bound, etc?

I think the answer is two-fold:

First, even if disastrous policy leads to vindication, most decent citizens (and hopefully our public servants) would prefer to avoid disaster if possible, even if it will lead to political victory down the road. Given the means that the GOP has used to achieve its end-goals over the past five years, though, I don’t feel confident that the explanation above captures the whole of the GOP contingent in Congress.

Second, most people that follow politics are aware of the sheer bureaucratic inertia of our governing system–even if a policy has been a total and complete disaster (see fiscal policy over the last 5 years), it is still incredibly difficult to change gears and address the policy shortcomings.

So, I think a reasonable case can be made that the GOP opposes the Affordable Care Act on the merits, and, in spite of the fact that they are quite sure that it will be a disaster that may or may not lead to electoral success down the road, GOP representatives in Congress are seeking last-ditch efforts to avoid the law out of some combination of public service and fear of bureaucratic inertia.

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