Why Republicans Are No Longer Going After Kathleen Sebelius

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 30 2013 7:13 PM

We Are the 5 Percent

Republicans have sharpened their Obamacare attack. Why call for Secretary Sebelius’ head, when you can stand with the uninsured?

Cory Gardner and Kathleen Sebelius
Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) listens as Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testifies during the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing about the troubled launch of the Healthcare.gov website on Wednesday.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

“Here’s my letter,” said Rep. Cory Gardner. The central Colorado congressman, who looks like an eager Batman sidekick grown up and made good, waved “the letter that my family got canceling our insurance.” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius looked on, framed by TV and still cameras capturing every flutter of the paper.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

“We chose to have our own private policy back in Colorado so we could be in the same boat as our constituents,” said the congressman. “And yet my insurance policy has been canceled. The White House website says, if you like the plan you have, you can keep it. Did I hear it wrong?”

Sebelius, who had sweated through three hours of questions (almost half of them, to be fair, from friendly Democrats), talked to Gardner as if trying to troubleshoot for him. “I don’t know how long you’ve had your plan,” she said.

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“Why aren’t you losing your health insurance?” asked Garner.

From there, the discussion turned into a familiar shaming exercise about why administration officials or liberal congressmen won’t sign onto the health care exchanges. Democrats find that easy to dismiss; Rep. Henry Waxman, the snappy ranking member of the committee, asked Sebelius if she could follow Gardner’s advice and secure a health plan that “would be able to protect you from cheap shots?”

But after the hearing, Gardner kept on fulminating about the broken “you can keep it” promise. In a TV statement, and in a short conversation with reporters, Gardner repeated the president’s phrase like a mantra. An insurer had informed Gardner and his family that their old plan was unavailable, replaced by something with a “significantly higher” cost. They were among the 15 million people who bought insurance on the individual market, and now among the 7 to 12 million whose plans would be ended by Affordable Care Act regulations.

“We’re like millions of Americans who lost our plan after the president said if we liked it we could keep it,” he said. “We called them up, and I said, ‘Is this due to Obamacare?’ They said, ‘Yeah.’ ”

To Republicans, this is the latest in an ongoing series of Obamacare “smoking guns,” proof that the law never should have passed. And it’s more than that. It’s a shift away from the fruitless, theoretical, absolutist attacks of the past few months. Let Sen. Ted Cruz go on about liberty and tyranny and the evils of the living Constitution. Now that Obamacare is being implemented, the rest of the party is going to feel the pain of the middle class.

That pain is most acutely felt, right now, by the 5 percent of Americans who shop on the individual insurance market. For more than three years, health care reporters had been warning that these plans would be altered or scrapped as they comported with new regulations, and for at least the last month conservatives had been circulating the letters from companies warning of the change. Gardner actually released his one month ago, the sort of dramatic gesture that might have gotten more attention had congressional conservatives not been betting all their chips on a government shutdown.

Since the shutdown ended, some of the conservatives most identified with Manichean calls to shrink the government are calling for something new. Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, won a new national following with a book (The Battle) about how each new government program put a brick on the “road to serfdom.” Yet in an Oct. 18 speech, he warned conservatives against “insane” attacks on “the government social safety net for the truly indigent.”

“We somehow want to zero out food stamps or something,” said Brooks. “It’s nuts to want to be doing something like that. We have to declare peace on the safety net.”

This week, in a speech at D.C.’s other conservative mega–think tank, Utah Sen. Mike Lee did a similar reshuffle of conservative talking points. It was worth building a federal system that rewarded good behavior and lifted up the poor, even if that meant—clutch your handkerchief—some redistribution of wealth. “Many middle-class parents may pay no income taxes—but they do pay taxes,” said Lee. “Working parents are not free riders.”

What Brooks, Lee, and Gardner all realized was that conservative Republicans needed to acknowledge what government looked like in 2013. The “if you like it, you can keep it” story, which they should have glommed on to earlier, inverts the health care narrative that had always made Democrats sound like Samaritans and Republicans sound like misers. Before, the “exemplar” story of health care was of the sick person (preferably young, preferably cherubic) being denied coverage because of villainous HMOs. Now, the networks were full of exemplars whose insurers had been held down and smothered by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ invisible army of regulators.

This has Democrats spooked, for the moment. On Wednesday, as Republicans got ready to roll out a bill literally named “The If You Like Your Health Care Plan You Can Keep It Act of 2013,” Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu promised her own version. “The promise was made and it should be kept,” said the Democrat, who’s up for re-election in 13 months. “It was our understanding when we voted for that, that people when they have insurance could keep what they had.”

So the sad insurance company letters will roll in, and Republicans will keep making them famous. As the New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn puts it, this tactic gets Republicans out of a jam on their own health spending plans. Almost every member of the party is on record for Medicaid reforms that would end the program for millions of people, hypothetically more than are getting the bad news about private insurance plans now. Democrats, for now, are set to be the party of pain and suffering. That’s surely why Republicans at the hearing didn’t actually call for Sebelius to quit her job, or for the president to fire her.

“If this were the private sector, heads would roll,” said an eager reporter to committee chairman Rep. Fred Upton, after the hearings.

“I had the opportunity to work at the White House myself, as a political appointee,” said Upton. “I served, every day, at the pleasure of the president. I knew that if I didn’t do my job, I probably wasn’t going to be there. Because she is there, she is serving with his pleasure, and, uh …”

He trailed off, but the point was clear. Republicans have a better target than Sebelius.

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