Obamacare is still the GOP’s great white whale

     Republican presidential candidate Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (left), and Tenor Ben Heppner dressed as Captain Ahab (Charlie Neibergall and LM Otero/AP Photo; (<a href=“http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-132899105/stock-photo-white-beluga-whale-in-aquarium-with-wide-open-mouth.html?src=OuHee6GU-Ujef_BTdSHvOg-1-4”>; Insert of white whale </a> via ShutterStock)

    Republican presidential candidate Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (left), and Tenor Ben Heppner dressed as Captain Ahab (Charlie Neibergall and LM Otero/AP Photo; (; Insert of white whale via ShutterStock)

    Some of us remember Moby Dick. In Melville’s classic novel, monomaniacal Captain Ahab was so obsessed with killing the great white whale that he lost a leg and lost a ship – yet still he persisted in his fruitless pursuit, risking his own destruction.

    I thought of Ahab this week, in the wake of the news that Scott Walker and Marco Rubio have released fruitless plans to harpoon Obamacare, to repeal and replace it with something or other.

    I suppose they did this to appease The Base – which, even now, refuses to accept historic health reform as the law of the land – but the reality is that Republicans are risking their ’16 destruction when they threaten to swipe health coverage from as many as 23 million Americans.

    The Walker and Rubio plans are predictably sketchy – Walker’s blueprint is 15 pages, 5 of which are logos – and they’re mostly standard Republican nods to deregulation and tax credits. Both guys talk about throwing people with pre-existing medical conditions into high-risk pools, but such pools would require lots of government money (tax hikes, anyone?), and neither guy says where that money would come from. Also, under Walker’s plan, if someone’s health coverage lapsed for even a day, insurers would be free to charge that person much higher premiums if he or she has a pre-existing condition. And so on.

    But there’s no point in detailing their plans, because they’re already DOA.

    Republicans, after five years of policy inertia, can’t agree on what a replacement would even look like. We’re seeing that now. Bobby Jindal is attacking Walker’s plan as too liberal, and touting his own repeal-and-replace plan as more appropriately conservative. But the tea-partyers at FreedomWorks complain that Jindal’s plan is just as liberal, and a group spokesman declares, “I’m still waiting for a candidate who wants to follow the Constitution and send health care back to the states and private sector, lock stock and barrel.”

    The Base is still pining for Captain Ahab, and the candidates feel duty bound to obey. This is a great way to lose another ship.

    Every once in a while, a sane conservative tries to talk sense to the Ahabs by explaining political reality. It happened earlier this summer when David Frum – former George W. Bush speechwriter and author of shrewd book about the conservative movement – did his very best to cure fellow Republicans of their Obamacare obsession. He knows that all the repeal-and-replace plans are DOA, because it would be political suicide to take away what millions of Americans have gained.

    Naturally, his reality-based arguments have been ignored. As a conservative, he has his own beefs with Obamacare. But he understands politics, and his warnings continue to ring true:

    (Republicans) are inviting every voter to wonder, “If I vote Republican, will I lose my health insurance?” For millions of people, the answer to that question will be: “Yes.”

    ….The Affordable Care Act meets some real national needs. It did provide insurance to millions who lacked it. It did put an end to some outrageous practices by health insurers. It does seem to be slowing the growth of per-person healthcare costs. If it vanished tomorrow, potentially as many as 23 million people would lose their coverage: the 11.2 million added to the Medicaid program since 2010, the 10 million in the state and federal exchanges, and the 5.7 million young adults under age 26 enrolled in parental healthcare plans….

    Republicans have promised not merely to repeal Obamacare but to “repeal and replace” it. But the party has never managed to coalesce around any replacement plan. The various ideas on offer remain stuck in the conceptual stage, vague about such important details as “how much would this cost,” “how many would be covered,” and “how will coverage be paid for.” What is clear, however, is that the Republican alternatives, such as they are, would remove coverage from many who have it now.

    In my opinion, that one fact is likely to cost Republicans the White House in 2016, no matter who they nominate.

    True that. And, as Frum rightly points out, here’s why:

    More than 80 percent of those who have gained coverage under the ACA were pleased with the coverage they got. Everything we know about voters tells us that they are much more motivated to protect something they already have than to vote to gain something new. In 2016, unlike in 2012, their benefits under the ACA will be something that many voters now have.

    Therefore, Frum says that if Republicans want to be competitive in the 2016 election, they “should accept the Affordable Care Act as a permanent new fact of America society.”

    But the big question is whether a party weighed down by fact-averse ideologues is still capable of facing reality. Republicans would be wise to brush up on Moby Dick. In the final chapter, the whale drags Ahab to his watery death.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.