Conservatives channel ‘Animal House’ on ACA decision

By Eric Mink

Republicans seem distressed and disoriented since last week’s multi-part U.S. Supreme Court ruling affirming most of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010. I can’t tell if they’re apoplectic at losing what they thought was a guaranteed win or anxious over gambling losses on bets that the Court would rule it unconstitutional. (Right before the law was upheld, the Intrade online betting service predicted there was a 75.5 percent likelihood it would be struck down.)

So is the fight finally over? For the answer, we turn, appropriately enough, to “Animal House” and a moment of crazed defiance by John Belushi’s Bluto Blutarsky: “Did you say over???  Nothing is over until WE decide it is!!!”

“Animal House” is rightnot Bluto’s Delta Tau Chi but the U.S. House of Representatives. The Republican majority of the House, in a rousing act of defiance, has scheduled a July 11 vote to repeal the law, which will pass. It will be a replay of the equally rousing act of defiance on Jan. 19, 2011, when the House also passed a resolution repealing the law, also to no effect whatsoever.

It seems at least a little relevant to note the obvious, which is that the ACA has survived those and considerably more substantive attacks. The most significant of the latter surely was the lavishly financed two-year legal crusade by the national Republican party, elected officials in 26 Republican-dominated states, wealthy anti-government ideologues, right-wing think tanks, corporate lobbyists and grassroots opposition groups that arose independently but morphed, on the wings of billionaires’ cash, into operational tools of the Republican party. That campaign ended in failure at the Supreme Court on June 28, thanks mainly to Chief Justice John Roberts’ deeper understanding of the Court’s proper role.

But, like Blutoor zombiesRepublicans haven’t stopped. The new strategy amounts to “stand still and kvetch.” Until last week, Republican officials, particularly at the state level, had been waiting for the Supreme Court to relieve them of any responsibility to help implement the law. Now they’re waiting for the November election.

Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Louisiana’s Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal said he has no intention of setting up the state health insurance exchange the ACA calls for. Exchanges would gather, organize and provide individuals easy access to comparative free-market information on private health insurance. Nor will Louisiana expand Medicaid, he said, as spelled out in the ACA. That provision would extend insurance coverage to working adults earning barely more than poverty-level income, with the federal government paying 100 percent of the cost for the first three years.

“I don’t think it makes sense to do those,” Jindal said. “I think it makes more sense to do everything we can to elect Mitt Romney to repeal Obamacare.”

And if that doesn’t work out, maybe they’ll wait for the next Transit of Venus to come around.  (December 2117, for those of you who are a little behind in your astronomical calculations.)

But credit where credit’s due: Notwithstanding their legislative and, now, judicial failures, Republicans have consistently excelled at twisting public perceptions about health care reform.

I first sensed something was up in the summer of 2009, when elected officials were back in their districts and hearing from constituents about what a reform bill might include. Some of it was, well, weird. 

Like what Rep. Robert Inglis, then a six-term Republican congressman from South Carolina, got from a man in the crowd at a town-hall meeting in Simpsonville that summer. The man warned him, Inglis later told the Washington Post, to “’keep your government hands off my Medicare.’ I had to politely explain that ‘Actually, sir, your health care is being provided by the government,’ but he wasn’t having any of it.”

This disconnection of fact from belief has persisted to this day. Public opposition to “Obamacare,” the Republican epithet of choice for the ACA, has remained at about two-thirds of the population since it was enacted two years ago. Yet by clear and often substantial margins, people enthusiastically embrace the law’s provisions.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s April tracking poll, 78 percent approve of an ACA provision that phases out the so-called doughnut hole in prescription drug coverage, a “hole” that leaves seniors on the hook for thousands of dollars a year in medication costs.  Seventy-one percent support the provision that lets parents keep children insured on their policies until age 26. Sixty-six percent support the ACA expansion of Medicaid that Jindal says doesn’t make sense.

Sixty-one percent support the ACA’s ban on insurance companies charging different premiums based on gender (almost always charging women more than men). Sixty percent agree with the ACA provision requiring insurance companies to sell policies to people with pre-existing adverse medical conditions, and 52 percent approve of the law’s limits on using age ratings rates based on age alone.

In other words, people hate the Affordable Care Act, and they love what it does. How is that possible?

A story last month in The New York Times helps explain the contradiction. Citing a study by Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group, The Times reported that conservative political groups, business lobbying associations and rich right-wingers had funneled some $235 million into advertising attacking the ACA not to prevent it from becoming law but to discredit it after it became law. 

The amount spent promoting the ACA? Only $69 million, the vast majority of which went to educational spots and materials from the U.S.  Department of Health and Human Services explaining what the law actually does, when and how its various parts take effect and how Americans could use of the law’s new services. In the old days, these would have been called public service announcements. Nobody pays attention to PSAs.

In sharp contrast, Republicans methodically planned and executed a message war over health care reform. It included an artfully designed communications strategy using field-tested words and phrases developed by long-time Republican consultant Frank I. Luntz in the spring and summer of 2009. They had massive amounts of money to spread the message. They stuck to and repeated recommended language over and over. 

And they were unapologetic in spreading misinformation and fear. (On her Facebook page last week, Sarah Palin disinterred the disgraceful “death panel” lie, and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, trotted out the old (and categorically false) “government takeover” canard on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday.

A new Republican fable tries to exploit the Court’s affirmation that a penalty for not having health insurance amounts to a constitutional exercise of Congress’ taxing authority. Georgia’s Republican Gov. Nathan Deal called it “the largest tax increase in the history of the United States.” Amy Kremer, chairwoman of the Tea Party Express group, called it “the biggest tax increase in U.S. history.” To right-wing radio entertainer Rush Limbaugh, “Obamacare is nothing more than the largest tax increase in the history of the world.”

Well, except for the seven tax increases between 1940 and 2006 including the one signed by Ronald Reagan in 1982 that were larger, several more than twice as large as a percentage of GDP.

And what has the Obama administration done to combat this destructive Republican mischief?  Virtually nothing.

Maybe Bluto was right, and this kvetching won’t be over until the conservatives decide it’s over.  Then again, Bluto also said it was the Germans who bombed Pearl Harbor.