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Why it matters that Republicans are abandoning their ACA attacks

The GOP spent much of the past decade with a single message related to health care policy: Repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Not anymore.


When Florida Sen. Rick Scott unveiled a controversial policy agenda in February, the Republican leader was unrestrained in its ambitions. Scott’s far-right fantasy touched on everything from abortion rights to school vouchers, tax hikes on the poor to lies about election administration. Even Social Security and Medicare would be jeopardized by the senator’s plan.

But Scott’s 31-page document left one obvious thing out: The GOP senator’s blueprint didn’t say anything about repealing or replacing the Affordable Care Act.

About a month later, Sen. Ron Johnson briefly suggested he wanted to put ACA repeal back on the table. The Wisconsin Republican is generally proud of his ideas, but in this instance, he scrambled to walk it back.

The developments served as a reminder: The politics of “Obamacare” have changed dramatically. Indeed, as Axios reported, the GOP is continuing to back off its earlier stances on the Affordable Care Act.

Republicans in tight congressional races are going silent on health care, scrubbing campaign websites of anti-abortion language and in some cases distancing themselves from past criticisms of the Affordable Care Act.... It’s a marked contrast to vulnerable Democrats, who’ve been campaigning nonstop on enshrining abortion rights and the Inflation Reduction Act’s health care provisions.

The article highlighted a variety of recent examples, including Nevada’s Adam Laxalt: When the Republican ran for state attorney general in 2018, attacking the health care reform law was a central part of his candidacy. Four years later, Laxalt is running for the U.S. Senate; his pitch to voters is silent on the ACA; his website makes no mention of the law; and his spokesperson no longer wants to talk about his position.

There are plenty of things Republicans want to talk about this campaign season. The Affordable Care Act isn’t one of them.

In the not-too-distant past, this would’ve been tough to predict. Indeed, for those of us who covered the political fight over the Affordable Care Act closely, this day seemed highly implausible. Before Barack Obama signed the reform package into law, Republicans condemned it as an economy-destroying attack on free enterprise and the American way of life. After the ACA became law, Republicans spent years not only denouncing the reforms, but also voting several dozen times to repeal it.

Now, even many conservative Republicans have moved on — in part because “Obamacare” is working so effectively, and in part because Democrats used the issue to great effect in the 2018 midterms, en route to taking back the House.

But just because GOP officials and candidates have shifted their focus away from the ACA doesn’t mean the substantive debate is over. Axios’ report added that Republicans’ willingness to distance themselves from their earlier condemnations “begs the bigger question of what the GOP’s health care agenda will look like if the party flips control of one or both houses of Congress.”

Putting aside the misuse of “begs the question,” the underlying point matters. The Republican Party spent much of the past decade with a single message related to health care policy: Repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. The GOP has not only dropped that goal, it’s also hoping voters forget that the party ever pursued such a regressive policy in the first place.

But the question for the electorate hasn’t changed: What exactly would Republicans do on health care policy if put in positions of power?