Just a few weeks ago, the Republican Party's collective reaction to Obamacare implementation setbacks was one of the most predictable rituals in U.S. politics. Masking spasms of joy in the language of lament or disbelief, Republicans would mock the law, assert that the latest glitch or delay was evidence of its real-time unraveling, and then darkly suggest that the next GOP president would use executive discretion to speed up that unraveling, if it hadn't already been repealed.
This ritual has more recently been replaced by one which begins when a Republican politician publicly acknowledges that repealing the law outright is no longer a viable option—infuriating conservative activists who promise to exact political retribution—and ends with retreat, or partial retreat to the fantasy that Obamacare should be repealed, complications notwithstanding.
Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers—the fourth highest ranking Republican in the House—is the latest politician to run through it. Speaker John Boehner came before her, and several others preceded him.
It's such a well worn ritual at this point, and such a stark change in communication patterns, that it speaks to a conundrum facing professional Republicans, and perhaps of a larger disagreement within their ranks. One of the most vexing questions in American politics right now is what the party's strategists really think about the politics surrounding the Affordable Care Act. When they're not playing to their voters and nobody's around to quote them, are they really confident that relentless Obamacare opposition is working or will deliver the party substantial gains in 2014?
If there are wildly divergent strains of thought among these strategists, or a schism between those who want to go all in on Obamacare and those who don't, they aren't admitting it, at least in those terms.
But look closely at the things Republicans are saying and doing today, especially in comparison to what they were saying and doing in November, December and January, and the evidence that many of them believe it's time to turn the page is everywhere.
A retweet isn't necessarily an endorsement, but in this case it absolutely is, because the linked Washington Post story from late February quotes Winston saying, “While health care is a very important issue, Republicans must focus on what is the overwhelmingly top issue — jobs and the economy, just like they did in 2010 with the question, ‘Where are the jobs?’”
Winston is John Boehner's pollster.
Since late February, Obamacare has enjoyed a run of excellent news, capped off on Monday by new polling from the Democratic firm Democracy Corps, which finds support for repealing the law collapsing in Republican districts, driven by a large shift among it's less-committed foes. "In our last battleground survey in December, independents favored repeal by a 12-point margin; they now support implementation by 7 points." The law is still under water, and the public continues to be confused about its structure and effects. But the intensity of opposition appears to be plummeting.
In the background of all these promising developments, leading Republican politicians and their operatives have discovered other things to get worked up about. Part of the reason is that there isn't much political value in nitpicking or unskewing good news. And the bad news these days just isn't nearly bad enough to logically precede the conclusion that the law should be wiped off the books. Last week we learned that the state of Oregon, which bungled its exchange in humiliating fashion, will cut bait and join Healthcare.gov, the federally-facilitated marketplace. That's a big embarrassment, and Republicans took pleasure in it. But not much else. I'd love to hear a repeal proponent argue that Oregon's debacle justifies taking insurance away from people in California, or anywhere else, but they too recognize that calling for repeal in this context would be way out of proportion.
Instead we're hearing a lot more about Tom Steyer and Harry Reid now than we were in the winter, and leading Republicans are back to talking up the possibility that they'll cut an immigration reform deal in the House after the primary.
This coincidence—losing the nerve to repeal Obamacare and finding the spine to push for immigration reform simultaneously—isn't lost on Red State's Daniel Horowitz, who laments that Boehner, McMorris Rodgers, and even Rand Paul "lied to us," and are suddenly amnesty-curious.
It's not lost on liberals either.
Brian Beutler is a senior editor at The New Republic.