January 11

COMMENTARY: GOP stuck in Obamacare rut, ignoring other important issues

Dana Milbank

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus on Tuesday outlined his party’s priorities for 2014. They are, in ascending order of importance:

• Obamacare.

• Obamacare! Obamacare!

• OBAMACARE! OBAMACARE! OBAMACARE! OBAMACARE! OBAMACARE!!!

“We’ve promised that in 2014 we’d continue to pound away at Democrats and Obamacare and that’s how we’re starting the year,” the chairman told reporters on a conference call. “Democrats are eager to change the subject, but Republicans aren’t going to let that happen,” he added. “That’s why, I guess, we’re starting up the year in this fashion talking about Obamacare.”

A reporter for The Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Gazette asked Priebus if “Obamacare is going to be the Johnny-one-note campaign for Republicans” in which “every issue that comes up, you’re going to respond with Obamacare.” Or, he inquired, “is there more to what Republicans want in 2014?”

“The answer is Obamacare,” Priebus said, before adding a “just kidding.” But he wasn’t really kidding. He went on to say that “it’s not possible for this not to be the No. 1 issue going into the 2014 elections. It’s just not. ... So the answer to your question is, it is going to be the No. 1 issue in 2014.”

The American public has a different view. A Gallup poll last month found that 47 percent cited economic issues as their top concern, including 31 percent who listed the overall economy and jobs. After that, 21 percent named dissatisfaction with government, followed by 17 percent who ranked health care. A CBS News poll a month earlier found much the same: Thirty-one percent cited the economy or jobs, compared to 15 percent listing health care.

But Priebus does seem to be in sync with Republicans in Congress. At the end of the House’s long holiday recess, Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia wrote to Republicans on Thursday to once again take up — you guessed it — Obamacare in the new session of Congress. This time he’s seeking to raise doubts about the privacy protections on HealthCare.gov. “American families have enough to worry about as we enter the new year without having to wonder if they can trust the government to inform them when their personal information — entered into a government mandated website — has been compromised,” he wrote.

Indeed, Americans do have enough things to worry about, but now they have the additional worry that one of the two major political parties is collectively suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Immigration? Iraq? Unemployment benefits? The Republicans, following a year that included dozens of repeal attempts and a government shutdown over Obamacare, are prepared to respond to all with Obamacare, Obamacare and Obamacare.

On Tuesday morning, the Senate held a procedural vote on a topic that actually is related to Americans’ top priority: extending unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless. Such benefits, which have never been cut off before when long-term joblessness was this high, expired just after Christmas. Only six Senate Republicans voted to take up the legislation; 37 voted to block consideration.

Before the vote, the GOP leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, unsuccessfully tried to amend the legislation so that the unemployment benefits were funded by canceling part of Obamacare.

On his conference call, Priebus said the RNC was targeting a dozen Democrats in key races for repeating President Obama’s claim that if you like your health insurance you can keep it. “In this time of New Year’s resolutions, I guess we’re asking people to make it their resolution to hold these Democrats accountable for the lies they told the American people,” he said. Holding them accountable “is how we’re starting the year and it’s probably what you’re going to see more of in the months to come.”

No doubt.

Caren Bohan of Reuters asked Priebus if he favored efforts by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to engage Republicans in fighting poverty. The chairman expressed his concern for “fellow citizens in need” before mentioning that part of the problem is that people “don’t need to be straddled with Obamacare.”

Straddled with Obamacare?

Chris Moody of Yahoo News saddled Priebus with another difficult question: How much progress had he made on last year’s RNC autopsy, which asserted, among other things, that the party should soften its position on immigration and gay rights?

Priebus avoided a discussion of ideology by saying his job was “building up the infrastructure and plumbing of this party.”

He might find that the plumbing would work better if Republicans would stop trying to flush Obamacare.

Dana Milbank is an American political reporter and columnist for The Washington Post. Email to danamilbank@washpost.com.
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