Commentary: Lies catch up to GOP in Obamacare repeal fight

You campaign in poetry, Mario Cuomo once said famously, but you govern in prose.

Prose means working with people you may not like to find a compromise that gets something useful done, even if falls short of your poetry.

Now, let's review how the Republicans running the show have updated that aphorism in these strange times:

You campaign in alternative facts, then you barely govern at all.

Witness the circular firing squad that conservatives' repeal-and-replace gambit on Obamacare rapidly has become.

The tear-it-all-down revolutionaries of the congressional Freedom Caucus - who mostly came to Washington thanks to the Tea Party rebellion against the Affordable Care Act - are incensed at House Speaker Paul Ryan.

You see, Ryan made the mistake of offering an ACA replacement that at least pretends government should do something to help people get health care. The pretense is half-hearted, but that's still too much for a chunk of Freedom Caucus stalwarts, who during their short time in town have never had to do anything but shout no.

Already right-wing sites like Breitbart.com scorn Ryan's bill as Obamacare 2.0 or Ryancare

Meanwhile, a host of organizations that have long known what President Trump just figured out two weeks ago - that health care is complicated - adamantly oppose the Republican proposal.

These include the AARP, the American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association, and a half dozen others with the words American and health in their names.

Having had seven years to concoct their ACA replacement, how could the GOP majorities have botched the job so grievously?

This is what happens when you combine three toxic habits:

Basing positions on partisan falsehoods.

Feeding those lies to constituents, who then base expectations on them.

Letting your critique of government's flaws lapse into a reflexive contempt for the very work of governing.

Our president loves to call the ACA a "disaster." But when pressed to detail exactly how, he just echoes tattered Tea Party rhetoric.

Here's that basic riff: Barack Obama "rammed" the ACA through in a partisan way with no effort to get GOP input. The bill hasn't covered many people while sending premiums and federal deficits soaring. Its "individual mandate" that people buy coverage or pay a fine equals socialist tyranny. And the law puts job-killing burdens on business.

Each one of these claims is . . . how to say this . . . alternative to fact.

In getting the ACA passed, Obama lived the poetry-prose paradox. In 2009-10, he wasted months waiting for a bipartisan "Gang of Six" in the Senate to produce a draft bill, until it became apparent that the GOP had decided not to work with him - at all, on anything. Even so, the bill that passed essentially updated the Republican version of health reform from the '90s.

Since the law passed, the percentage of uninsured Americans has dropped to an all-time low. Yes, the number is about 6 million less than the independent Congressional Budget Office originally estimated, but might that be in part because of how Congress systematically undermined the initiative and how some Republican governors refused to let their states participate fully?

The idea of an individual mandate, far from being a socialist dream, originated with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that has whipped up opposition to its own idea ever since Obama adopted it.

The mandate is properly understood as a "fine for freeloading." People who pay nothing into the health-care system but expect it to be there to serve them when they have an accident or sudden illness are, simply put, freeloaders.

Jobs? We are in the middle of the longest sustained period of job growth since the nation started keeping tabs. Modest, yet growth nonetheless. Care to guess when this skein began? Yep, March 2010, the very month Obamacare became law.

Premiums? Increases got scary in some states (not all) last year, but they were modest through most of the law's life. Deficits? Economists differ (hey, there's an upset), but the CBO estimates the ACA will reduce deficits over its first decade.

Now, the ACA surely has flaws. Most first passes at major policy change do. Normally, those errors get corrected in follow-up legislation. But the GOP's "repeal or nothing" stance has prevented such useful tweaks. The law's foes wanted the flaws to remain, to whip up support for "root and branch" repeal. This was breathtakingly irresponsible.

Please understand a key reason why this fairly successful program is under such attack:

It subsidizes coverage for people of modest means through stiff taxes on the very rich. These same rich people paid a lot of money to get this Congress and now expect it to do their bidding.

It's easy to shout no and whip up the public with falsehoods.

But the GOP caucus isn't the opposition anymore. It's in power. It's expected to actually make things better. Hard to do while navigating around the lies and misconceptions it has fed its supporters.

Remember the old rule of retail:

You break it, you bought it.

Chris Satullo is a former Inquirer editor. @chrissatullo centersquarephl@gmail.com

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