There has been a fair amount of discussion in recent days about whether Republicans should try to defund Obamacare. The instinct to do something about Obamacare is right. But Republicans can learn something from the American people. As polls have consistently shown, Americans like the idea of delaying—and of repealing—Obamacare. But they don’t like the sound of defunding it. In terms of policy, either approach would produce essentially the same result. (Whether the Obamacare exchanges are delayed for a year, or its exchange subsidies are defunded for a year, the result would be no taxpayer-funded Obamacare exchanges next year.) Politically, however, framing the effort as one of delaying rather than defunding stands a far greater chance of success.
Over the past two-and-a-half years, Kaiser’s Health Tracking Poll has repeatedly asked Americans what they think of Obamacare and of efforts to defund it. On average, the eight Kaiser polls that have asked these two questions have found that Americans oppose Obamacare by 5 percentage points—45 to 40 percent. Yet they oppose defunding Obamacare by 29 points—61 to 32 percent. Kaiser’s most recent poll that addresses defunding (its April 2013 poll) shows no change in this steady judgment: Americans oppose Obamacare by 5 points (40 to 35 percent), but also oppose defunding it by 27 points (58 to 31 percent).
To be sure, Kaiser is rather clearly pro-Obamacare, and the Kaiser poll is a consistent outlier that reliably shows more support for Obama’s centerpiece legislation than one sees elsewhere. Still, it’s striking how the poll’s respondents are so much more likely to oppose Obamacare than to embrace defunding it. Even if one assumes (and this is probably a pretty fair assumption) that Kaiser’s polling is off by, say, 10 points in Obamacare’s favor—meaning that, based on Kaiser’s April poll, Americans actually oppose Obamacare by 15 points (rather than 5) and oppose defunding it by 17 points (rather than 27)—the picture remains clear: Americans dislike Obamacare, but they don’t want it to be defunded.
A CBS News poll from February 2011—the only other published poll of which I’m aware that has asked about defunding—produced similar results. That poll showed Obamacare in an 18-point hole—with only 33 percent of respondents supporting it and 51 percent opposing it. Yet it nevertheless showed that, by a margin of 20 points (55 to 35 percent), respondents didn’t want Obamacare to be defunded.
Neither Kaiser’s nor CBS’s question on defunding seems overly leading or obviously unfair. Rather, Americans seem to view defunding as being improper and/or inconsistent with basic rules of sound governance. The February 2011 Kaiser poll actually asked those respondents who opposed defunding why they opposed it, offering four potential reasons. The most commonly picked reason (and also the most commonly listed “major” reason) was this: “The appropriate way to stop a law is by voting to repeal it. Using the budget process to stop a law is just not the way our government should work.” Almost four in five people (79 percent) who were opposed to defunding listed this as a reason for their opposition, while 59 percent of them listed this as a “major” reason.
But Americans do want Republicans to try to stop or delay Obamacare. The April Kaiser poll asked whether Obamacare’s opponents “should continue trying to change or stop it, so it has less impact on taxpayers, employers, and health care providers,” or “should accept that it is now the law of the land and stop trying to block the law’s implementation.” By a 20-point margin (53 to 33 percent), respondents said that Obamacare’s opponents should keep trying to impede its implementation.
Similarly, a Rasmussen poll taken earlier this month found that, by a margin of more than 2-to-1 (56 to 26 percent), Americans favored delaying Obamacare’s individual mandate—its requirement that, for the first time in United States history, private American citizens must buy a product or service of the federal government’s choosing. That 30-point margin in favor of delaying the individual mandate was even greater than the 16-point margin (55 to 39 percent) by which respondents said they opposed Obamacare generally.
In short, Americans don’t seem to have any problem with, and indeed seem to be supportive of, efforts to delay Obamacare (and ultimately to repeal it).
The same Rasmussen poll cited above asked whether, to qualify for Obamacare’s taxpayer-funded exchange subsidies, people should “be forced to prove they are eligible by documenting their income and lack of access to insurance,” or whether it should “simply be assumed that all applicants are giving honest information on their applications.” By a margin of more than 10-to-1—86 percent to 8 percent—respondents rejected the idea of handing subsidies out on the “honor system.” That’s what is currently slated to happen, thanks to Obama’s lawless refusal to implement the legislation as written.
Taken together, all of these polls suggest that an effort that is framed as defunding Obamacare is likely a political loser, while efforts to delay two of Obamacare’s most central and least popular provisions—its individual mandate and its fraud-friendly exchanges—would likely be embraced by all but the far left of the political spectrum. If congressional Republicans decide to make approval of a continuing resolution or a debt-limit increase contingent upon anything relating to Obamacare, delay of these two central elements would seem to offer the best chance for rallying public support.
Jeffrey H. Anderson is executive director of the newly formed 2017 Project, which is working to advance a conservative reform agenda.