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Image: Sen. Ron Johnson
Sen. Ron Johnson takes his seat for the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation Subcommittee hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Feb. 16, 2022.Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call via AP file

Why Ron Johnson’s new rhetoric on ‘Obamacare’ repeal matters

It’s difficult to overstate how happy Democratic campaign operatives were to hear Ron Johnson raise the prospect of trying again to repeal the ACA.


It’s hardly a secret that Republicans are optimistic about their chances in this year’s midterm elections, and their confidence is rooted in reality. Not only does the historical pattern bode well for the GOP — the president’s party nearly always suffers in his second year — but recent polling suggests the party is well positioned to make significant gains.

That does not mean, however, that Republicans won’t screw this up.

The Associated Press reported yesterday, for example, on the GOP committing “unforced errors” that threaten to undermine its 2022 prospects. Near the top of the list was Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida unveiling a highly controversial policy blueprint that, among other things, called for higher income taxes on millions of lower-income Americans.

It was against this backdrop that Sen. Ron Johnson appeared on a conservative radio talk show yesterday, and as The Washington Post reported, the Wisconsin Republican committed an unforced error of his own.

Sen. Ron Johnson said he wants to see the GOP repeal the Affordable Care Act if his party wins the White House and the House and Senate majorities in 2024.... In an interview that aired Monday morning on Breitbart News Radio, Johnson (R-Wis.) said the GOP’s main goal was to obstruct President Biden and Democrats’ agenda until, he hoped, Republicans could win the majorities in the House and Senate in the midterm elections this year. If Republicans also won the White House in 2024, he added, that would be when they could “actually make good on what we established as our priorities.”

“For example, if we’re going to repeal and replace Obamacare — I still think we need to fix our health-care system — we need to have the plan ahead of time so that once we get in office, we can implement it immediately, not knock around like we did last time and fail,” the incumbent senator said.

It’s difficult to overstate how happy Democratic campaign operatives were to hear Johnson say this.

“Voters are learning exactly what Republicans will do with a Senate majority, in their own words: raise taxes on seniors and working families, end Medicare and Social Security — and once again try to spike the cost of health care while ripping away coverage protections from Americans with pre-existing conditions,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesperson Amanda Sherman-Baity said in a statement, issued soon after the senator made the comments. “Republicans like Ron Johnson keep showing they only care about pushing the agenda of the ultra-rich and big corporations — while working families pay the price.”

Around the same time, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi added, “Here we go again: even in the wake of a pandemic, the GOP just can’t quit their obsession with ripping health care away from Americans with pre-existing conditions.”

Just four years ago, Democrats won back the House majority in large part by focusing on Republican efforts to take health security away from tens of millions of families. Johnson, unprompted, opened the door to having that same election-year debate once more.

It was easy to imagine other GOP senators being pressed to respond to Johnson’s rhetoric, putting all Republicans in an awkward position.

And so, Johnson did something entirely unexpected: The Wisconsin senator walked it all back.

Last night, the Republican issued a lengthy statement, as part of an effort to clarify the comments he made hours earlier. Johnson said that during the interview he used the failure “to repeal and replace Obamacare as an example of how we need to be prepared to deliver on whatever agenda items we decide to run on. I was not suggesting repealing and replacing Obamacare should be one of those priorities.”

In case this isn’t obvious, Johnson has a habit of saying ridiculous things with some regularity, and in the face of controversy, he rarely expresses regret. This time, however, the Wisconsin lawmaker felt compelled to clean up his own mess with great speed.

Stepping back, there’s a larger significance to developments like these. First, Johnson’s quick reversal was a reminder that Republicans do not want an election-year fight over health care — because it is a fight the GOP would lose.

Second, it is nothing short of extraordinary to see how dramatically the politics surrounding the ACA have changed. Rick Scott’s blueprint included literally dozens of conservative priorities, but he did not mention “Obamacare” at all. A couple of weeks later, Johnson appeared to endorse ACA repeal, only to scramble soon after to say he didn’t mean it.

As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, this day seemed implausible in the not-too-distant past. Before Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act 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 voting several dozen times to repeal “Obamacare.”

At one point, then-Rep. Mick Mulvaney — before he joined Donald Trump’s White House team — characterized ACA repeal votes as rites of passage for Republicans on Capitol Hill. They didn’t care whether their repeal bills passed; they cared about going through the motions for the purpose of political theatrics.

Nearly 12 years after the Affordable Care Act became law of the land, the debate appears to have run its course. “Obamacare” is working; it’s popular; it’s affordable; it’s withstood far too many legal challenges; and as Ron Johnson helped prove yesterday, it no longer has a Republican-imposed target on its back.