Trump revives losing cause vs. Obamacare

Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — Throughout the Barack Obama years, the Republican Party beat a dead horse, repeatedly trying to kill the Democratic program providing the government-overseen health care plan. Officially, it’s called the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, but the GOP derisively nicknamed it Obamacare.

Donald Trump is trying all over again, looking to the Supreme Court to declare the law unconstitutional.

Long ago, Republican congressional leaders were determined to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, but they finally were dramatically denied by one remaining colleague with a spine, the late Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

On July 28, 2017, he rose from a sickbed at home, flew across the country and cast the deciding Senate vote that kept Obamacare alive, to the great dismay of fellow Republicans but to the grateful relief of millions of its policyholders.

Among their supporters was former vice president Joe Biden, a principal architect of the Affordable Care Act who is now on the cusp of the 2020 party presidential nomination.

If Trump had wanted to arouse Biden’s wrath, he could not have found a better policy to assail than Obamacare. The former vice president, after stumbling through the early 2020 party primaries, made a remarkable comeback in South Carolina on the strength of African American voters and is poised to be the next Democratic nominee.

Just why Trump would choose to resurrect the lost cause of killing Obamacare is a political mystery, when in recent history it has been widely and increasingly popular with voters.

In the Democratic primaries, Biden clung to it in competition with the more progressive party wing led by Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, that favored a Medicare-for-all alternative replacing Obamacare.

Biden undercut them by also offering a public option that works similarly to Medicare, tailored for those who cannot take advantage of private-industry coverage paid for by their employers or unions.

As a result, Obamacare has been substantially reduced as a vulnerable target for Trump to exploit in the coming general election, once it gets seriously underway. Its protection of coverage for pre-existing conditions remains among its most publicly desirable features.

Accordingly, the president is thrashing around in search of another path to save his incumbency, in the midst of sinking public opinion polls and a health-care crisis hammering his rudderless policy leadership.

He is being reduced to finding other political escape routes, such as challenging the use of mail-in voting prior to Election Day and making wild claims that the outcome will be “rigged” against him by unidentified “thugs” and other partisan miscreants.

Biden himself has warned in a recent radio interview that Trump “is going to try to steal this election.” Speculative scenarios circulate of ways the sitting president, if faced with defeat, might decline to go quietly and have to be forcibly removed from the White House. He has told Fox News, though, “Certainly, if I don’t win, I don’t win.”

Such is the atmosphere of contrivance on one side and wishful thinking on the other, as this weird and most unconventional presidential year unwinds. Both major party conventions are toying with ways to soldier through the chaos of the coronavirus pandemic, hoping to emerge with a semblance of sanity and discipline. The Grand Old Party particularly gropes to retain public interest and respect for a political process that has gone haywire in the path of an invisible force of nature.

One can only hope that we as a people can maintain our own sanity through the coming months; that we can allow our long history of peaceably selecting our national leadership to run its course through an orderly procedure that has served us well for more than two centuries.

The best result will be a clear-cut, incontrovertible victory for one nominee or the other, in both the popular vote and in the Electoral College.

Until then, however, the chances are the divisions and the bitterness on both sides will go on, until the people speak decisively and with a collective wisdom that seems beyond our capability right now.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcovercomcast.net.


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