I've argued in the last couple of posts that Republicans -- both elected officials and GOP judges -- really could be prepared to tough out the mass loss of health coverage that would result if the Supreme Court ultimately upholds the Halbig decision. Now I see from Dave Weigel that they're already hard at work on constructing a narrative: loss of coverage would be Obama's fault.
In a conference call today, while going over the meaning of the Halbig v. Burwell decision, the Cato Institute's health care freedom fighter Michael Cannon drained the national strategic chutzpah reserve. Were people blaming him and litigators for people being threatened with higher health care costs? They were fingering the wrong guy.Ted Cruz, according to Weigel, references Obama's "lawlessness." John Boehner says the Halbig decision proves that Obamacare can "never be fixed." Oklahoma congressman Jim Bridenstine makes a snarky reference to one of the GOP's favorite distortable quotes, Nancy Pelosi's assertion in 2010 that "we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it." This actually meant that the media wasn't explaining the bill's benefits adequately while it was obsessing over the politics of trying to get the bill passed (see Weigel's post for the full quote in context), but the right always interprets it as an admission that supporters of the bill didn't understand the bill's contents.
"If 5 million people lose subsidies, it is because the administration I think recklessly was offering them subsidies that it had no authority to offer," said Cannon. "If that causes dislocation, if that causes disruption, I think that responsibility lies with the administration." ...
"This means that the President has been misrepresenting the true costs of health coverage to millions of American families," argued Tennessee Rep. Diane Black, one of the GOP's frequent health care messengers. "Consider that over a million taxpayers could already be on the hook for improper subsidy payments due to an inability of the federal government to verify income eligibility -- now anyone who has received a subsidy at all on the federal exchange could potentially be faced with having to make back payments, all due to President Obama's recklessness."
Republicans are trying out a lot of different lines of attack -- and you can interpret this spin effort two ways. On the one hand, they apparently think they need to frame this decision now, even though it hasn't gone into effect and will probably be reversed on appeal, pending final Supreme Court review. That suggests that they're somewhat nervous about the ruling's implications and think they need to start shifting the blame for any negative consequences now.
On the other hand, the fact that they're getting the blame-shift under way now suggests that they're laying a lot more propaganda groundwork than Democrats are, and therefore they'll be ready to flood the spin zone if the Supreme Court guts the law. Republicans are always better at narrative-framing; they think many moves ahead. I'd say they're playing chess and Democrats are playing checkers, but it's more as if Democrats are playing EMT -- they're going to wait for something terrible to happen and then react.
The spin suggests, as I said yesterday, that the Supreme Court, if it upholds this ruling, won't declare the entire law unconstitutional -- it'll uphold the rest of the law and leave the individual mandate in place without (in most states) the subsidies that make buying coverage affordable under that mandate, leaving Obama the blame for the mess. The Supremes will cheekily throw in a passage in the decision saying that the subsidies could be restored if Congress and the president can just agree on a simple bill to restore them -- knowing full well that congressional Republicans will never agree to do that.
Republican anti-Obamacare propaganda frequently focuses on scary statistics on premium costs; it's left to supporters of the law to point out that the awful numbers ignore the subsidies available to consumers. So now, if the Halbig ruling is upheld, the subsidies actually won't be available in many cases. What Republicans have sought to portray as the "true" costs of health coverage under Obamacare will be the real costs to consumers, thanks to Republican skulduggery. And they'll say it's Obama's fault.