With little more than 11 months to go in the 2024 presidential campaign, you can expect a steady dose of Democrats arguing that Donald Trump would be untethered in a second term — that the guardrails would be cast aside and a term-limited Trump would go where his more sober-minded advisers once persuaded him not to.
This weekend, Trump handed Democrats a case in point.
After years of Republicans effectively giving up on their long-stated goal of repealing Obamacare, Trump signaled it’s back on the table — and even a priority for him.
“The cost of Obamacare is out of control, plus, it’s not good Healthcare,” Trump said Saturday on Truth Social. “I’m seriously looking at alternatives. We had a couple of Republican Senators who campaigned for 6 years against it, and then raised their hands not to terminate it. It was a low point for the Republican Party, but we should never give up!”
Whether Trump and his party would ever actually try again is a valid question. Trump says a lot of things. The impetus for this comment was a Wall Street Journal editorial raising concerns about insurers exploiting the law, also officially known as the Affordable Care Act.
But what’s clear is that an effort to “terminate” Obamacare is not something Americans are pining for. Not only were the GOP’s efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare during Trump’s term historically unpopular, but the law also appears to have gotten more popular since then. Perhaps most strikingly, this doesn’t even appear to be a major emphasis for the GOP base.
A Washington Post review of polling in the summer of 2017 showed, on average, just 22 percent of Americans supported the GOP’s ultimately failed efforts to replace Obamacare, while 55 percent opposed them.While the law was initially unpopular — there were problems with getting the program up and running a decade ago — multiple polls showed its approval cresting a majority as soon as the GOP began trying to repeal and replace it in 2017. In Gallup’s polling, it went from 42 percent approval around Election Day 2016 to 55 percent in April 2017.The only major pollster to repeatedly test views of the law over the past couple of years, KFF (formerly the Kaiser Family Foundation), has shown favorable views of the law even higher this year — ranging from 57 percent to as high as 62 percent.A Fox News poll in late 2020 asked voters to choose between keeping the law in place and repealing it. They chose keeping it, 64 percent to 32 percent. Even 32 percent of Republicans favored keeping it.KFF polling in 2020 showed the law dropping substantially as a priority for Republican voters. Opposing or repealing Obamacare was their top health-care issue in 2016, with 29 percent naming it. But that fell to just 3 percent in 2020.
This is in some ways the inverse of Trump’s approach to abortion rights. On that issue, Trump has cautioned his party against some of its more hard-line impulses, which have proved problematic at the ballot box.
Obamacare is less of a likely vote-mover than abortion right now, in large part because it just hasn’t been front and center. The GOP effectively disowned Obamacare as an issue in the 2020 and 2022 campaigns, recognizing that its efforts had failed and that it wasn’t worth it (or politically wise) to press the issue.
But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be a major issue once again, and the reason is simple: Voters tend not to like threats to take away benefits. Obamacare isn’t an entitlement program, strictly speaking, but it has some features of one. And when politicians talk of ending health insurance for tens of millions of Americans, dropping coverage of preexisting conditions and cutting Obamacare’s Medicaid funding, things get even dicier.
It’s not clear what form a potential “alternative” might take. Trump has at least given lip service in the past to keeping some of the more popular features of Obamacare. But actually making that happen would be immensely difficult.
As for whether Trump actually would go down this road? His approach to abortion rights and the realities of getting it done would suggest we shouldn’t hold our collective breath. But don’t underestimate the fact that, more so than abortion rights, this issue is personal for Trump.
This was a major failure on his watch — see his comment about “a low point for the Republican Party” — and he was stymied by a man he frequently derided, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose thumbs-down killed the effort once and for all. Trump could also reason that an increasingly Trump-aligned GOP contingent in Congress would be more likely to go along with him.
Whether he follows through or not, he has surely handed Democrats a talking point.