The enrollment figures may be well short of what the Obama administration had hoped for. But the fact that a significant number of Americans are now benefiting from the program is resulting in a subtle shift among Republicans. "It's no longer just a piece of paper that you can repeal and it goes away," said Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin and a Tea Party favorite. "There's something there. We have to recognize that reality. We have to deal with the people that are currently covered under Obamacare." And that underscores a central fact of American politics since Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act during the Depression: Once a benefit has been bestowed, it is nearly impossible to take it away.
The Obama administration won't have an official announcement on December's health care enrollment numbers for a few more weeks, but chances are good that we'll see a spike in the number of newly enrollment Americans. At the end of November, the Affordable Care Act had helped bring coverage to about 1.2 million people; by the end of this month, that total will include millions more.
And with each new enrollment, it slowly dawns on congressional Republicans that the larger calculus has changed in fundamental ways. Jonathan Weisman reported overnight that GOP policymakers are "confronting a new reality."
Quite right. The Republican repeal crusade, whether the party wants to admit it or not, is over. Sure, Boehner & Co. can schedule a few dozen more repeal votes to help Tea Partiers feel warm and fuzzy, but even that's less likely in light of the millions of consumers who've signed up for coverage -- in an election year, candidates don't generally thrive running on a platform that says, "Vote for me so I can take health care benefits away from your family."
Indeed, GOP officials are desperate to talk about the "cancellation notices" a small sliver of the population received, but it gets a little tricky for these same Republicans to draw up plans to cancel millions more health care plans on purpose.
As we discussed a few weeks ago, the fight over health care is no longer an abstraction over hypothetical benefits. There's a profound difference between "Republicans are voting to deny you a benefit you don't yet enjoy" and "Republicans are voting to take away your health insurance and replace it with nothing." The former struck GOP officials as plausible; the latter is politically suicidal.
So, as of this minute, what's the Republican position on health care? No one, including GOP policymakers themselves, has any idea. For years, it was a straightforward push to repeal the entirety of the law, regardless of the consequences or human suffering. Now, some still want to pretend repeal is possible, others want to tinker around the edges with "reforms." Some believe it's time for Republicans to craft a policy alternative of their own to present to voters, others believe incessant complaining should be enough to give the GOP a boost on Election Day.
"The hardest problem for us is what to do next," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told Weisman.
Ya don't say.