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GOP eyes 'Obamacare trap' warily

Republicans have a choice: refuse to offer a health care alternative or present an Obamacare rival that will be worse than the Affordable Care Act.
Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) appears at a press conference at the U.S. Capitol on November 19, 2013 in Washington, D.C.
Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) appears at a press conference at the U.S. Capitol on November 19, 2013 in Washington, D.C.
Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R) held an event in his Indiana district this week, at which health care was a major topic of conversation. According to a local press account, not everyone in this Republican area necessarily opposes "Obamacare."
But Stutzman seemed to realize at the event that simply condemning what he doesn't like won't be enough. "What are you replacing it with? That's what everybody is asking right now," the congressman said, adding, "There's several Republican plans that are competing with each other right now just internally. After the first of the year, we are going to try to sort through that."
That last part was actually rather newsworthy -- we didn't know that House Republicans are planning to finally present their alternative to the Affordable Care Act sometime in 2014. In fact, Byron York reported that intra-party talks are still underway.

[I]n private discussions, House Republicans stress their differences over the details of an Obamacare alternative. For example, there's no agreement on precisely how to fix the tax inequity for people who don't receive health coverage at work. There are similar disagreements over all sorts of other points of policy. "Getting unanimity is a tall order for a divided, leaderless party," says the GOP aide.

As Democrats can attest, getting unanimity is a tall order for a united party with strong leaders, too.
Regardless, while York describes an "Obamacare trap" in which Republican lawmakers struggle with whether to fix or destroy the existing system, the circumstances lead me to believe a very different kind of trap is set.
Let's say, after five years of effort, House Republicans finally emerge from behind closed doors with a health care reform package they're proud of and willing to present to the public. What then? The GOP plan will be subjected to some policy scrutiny, which is where the party is likely to run into some trouble.
It's easy to imagine a side-by-side comparison, in which the Affordable Care Act is tested against the Republican alternative. Which covers more uninsured Americans? Which reduces the deficit more? Which offers the stronger consumer protections? Which is more effective in controlling long-term costs?
I'd bet good money that on all of these questions, the GOP plan will lose -- not because Republican policies are necessarily worse than Democratic policies, but because Republicans have already said their approach to health care would eschew regulations and public investments. And while it's possible to create a health care plan without spending or safeguards, it's not possible to create a good health care plan without them.
Ultimately, that's the "trap" GOP officials need to be mindful of. On the one hand, they can continue to offer nothing in the way of an alternative, effectively telling the public they're not serious about the issue and they prefer to take cheap shots rather than govern. On the other, they can build a consensus around an Obamacare alternative that almost certainly won't be nearly as good as the ACA. (Remember, the basic framework of the Affordable Care Act was the Republican policy up until a few years ago.)
The trap is set. The question isn't whether Republicans will fall in, but rather, whether they can get out.