Every time the Obama administration releases new Affordable Care Act enrollment data, the law's opponents pull out their favorite hairsplitters and get to work. It's natural. And to an extent, it's merited. But it's also worth remembering why they expend so much energy slicing down the beneficiary total to begin with. It's not out of some abstract affinity for transparent data, but that they have staked an incredible amount on the belief that the end-of-March beneficiary total would be small.
In fact, they needed it to be. If your political strategy is Obamacare-or-bust, you are in essence banking on a prediction that more people will be worse off than better off under the law in its first year.
That explains Byron York's latest column, in which he walks right up to the banks of the Rubicon, but can't quite bring himself to cross it and acknowledge that the strategy has failed.
Where months ago conservatives were conjuring up the specter of an Obamacare death spiral, and weeks ago were predicting premium spikes, and days ago were confident that Obamacare would be a net loser for Democrats, York now posits, "Midterms may hinge on whether Obamacare losers outvote the winners."
If you're going to make the very big assumption that Obamacare will be a decisive issue in the coming election, this is a decent way to think about it. There are related issues regarding the intensity of Obamacare support and opposition, but it's close. The problem is that York vastly undercounts the winners. He mentions the people who were previously uninsured. But he leaves out the many millions who are better off even though they had insurance before. As Jonathan Cohn has noted, that includes people who had inadequate insurance before—because it had huge gaps—or people who were paying a lot more before they became eligible for the law's sometimes-huge subsidies. It works both ways, of course—some newly insured people are surely grumbling that the mandate required them to do it. But there's ample evidence at this point that the winners outnumber the losers, and by a large number.
But at this point the right's entire strategy teeters on a foundation of fuzzy accounting and wishful thinking. Pull either one out from underneath, and the whole thing will topple.
Republicans are still poised for a good 2014, particularly in the Senate, and would love to attribute victory to Obamacare, even if doing so defies logic and exit polls. And that means creating a model in which Obamacare victims carry Republican candidates to victory on election night—which in turn requires convincing yourself that more people have been harmed and fewer helped than is actually true.
Brian Beutler is a senior editor at The New Republic.