For many Republican politicians, opposition to the Affordable Care Act is pretty straightforward: the law should be repealed in its entirety. The end. But for many others, especially those involved in competitive statewide elections, it’s not quite that simple.
Yes, “Obamacare” is unpopular, creating an obvious incentive for conservative politicians to run against it, but wholesale repeal is unpopular, too. For that matter, many of the individual provisions of the ACA enjoy broad public support, and as enrollment totals grow, firm stands against the law are tantamount to promises to strip families of their health care benefits on purpose.
It’s left some politicians trying (and failing) to walk a tightrope. Take North Carolina’s Thom Tillis, the leading Republican candidate in a crowded field for the U.S. Senate.
Tillis opposes the Affordable Care Act, except for the popular parts, which he’d like to keep. He vaguely supports the alternative plan presented by his home-state ally Sen. Richard Burr (R), but not really.
Yesterday, Greg Sargent flagged a recent comment Tillis made during a radio interview, in reference to the Democratic health care law:
“I think there’s a lot of things we can do if we focus on a systematic approach to eliminating the bad, and the majority of the stuff that is in Obamacare is bad, because it’s not fiscally sustainable. It’s a great idea that can’t be paid for.”
This is what political professionals like to call “off-message.”
On a substantive level, it’s important to note that Tillis’ fiscal concerns don’t make much sense. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the Affordable Care Act is not only fiscally sustainable, it actually improves the nation’s overall finances in the coming years, reducing future deficits by hundreds of billions of dollars. If someone’s drawing up a list of “Obamacare” complaints, worrying that it “can’t be paid for” arguably deserves to be at the very bottom.
But on a political level, hearing a Republican Senate candidate in a competitive Southern state describe the ACA as “a great idea” is a stark reminder of just how convoluted the party’s healthcare positioning has become.
Ben Ray, a spokesperson for the North Carolina Democratic Party, recently said, “North Carolinians deserve to know what Thom Tillis’ stance on health care is. Why is he hiding?” And that was before the candidate started characterizing the ACA as “great.”
In fairness, I should note that the Tillis campaign is trying to walk back the comments. “Speaker Tillis was referring to the fact that Obamacare is like so many other ideas that come from Washington that include big promises but no way to pay for them,” Tillis’ campaign manager, Jordan Shaw, told TPM. “Democrats think Obamacare is a great idea, but they offer no way to pay for it.”
I haven’t the foggiest idea what this is even supposed to mean. For one thing, apparently it’s not just Democrats who think the law is a great idea. For another, “Obamacare” is fully paid for. It’s filled with provisions – some of them unpopular – to ensure that the law is not only fiscally responsible, but actually reduces the deficit. How can a U.S. Senate campaign talk about health care without knowing this?
No wonder Tillis seems so confused.