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Essay: Waving the Bloody Shirt

Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan delivers remarks before signing legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and to cut off federal funding of Planned Parenthood during an enrollment ceremony in the Rayburn Room at the U.S. Capitol January 7, 2016.

One of the concerns on many people’s minds is what will happen to the Affordable Care Act. Lake Effect essayist Avi Lank is one of them:

As plans to repeal and replace Obamacare pick up steam, historically minded Republicans are thinking about the bloody shirt - no, not a medical bloody shirt, but a political one. For decades after the Civil War, the Republican Party used "waiving the bloody shirt" as a sure-fire device for winning presidential elections.

The term was shorthand for reminding the electorate that it was a Republican, Abraham Lincoln, who led the country to victory in the Civil War while many Democrats sympathized with the south. Except for Grover Cleveland's victories in 1884 and 1892, it helped the GOP in every election from 1868 to 1912.

The Republicans had a winning issue, and they stuck with it. Something similar has happened since 2010 with Obamacare. For the last six years, Republicans have used President Obama's signature legislative achievement to bludgeon every Democrat in sight, and it has worked. Now, the Grand Old Party faces the challenge of how it can continue to use Obamacare as a political club when it has the ability to completely obliterate the program.

Some Republicans wanted to set things up so that Obamacare's death would linger, at least enough to make it an issue in the 2018 elections. But the politics have shifted.

At his news conference last Wednesday, President-Elect Donald Trump threw in the bloody shirt, saying he wants Obamacare to be repealed and replaced at approximately the same time. Already, many Democrats are calling this so-far unknown Republican replacement a way to Make America Sick Again, a cute play on the baseball cap slogan of Trump's presidential campaign. But Democrats using that as a bloody shirt is as cynical as the Republicans using Obamacare as a political club for all these years.

Running around shouting, "Make America Sick Again," will do no good for people who lose their insurance because of Republican actions. It would be better for America if Democrats reached across the aisle, seizing the opportunity presented by Trump's statement and Republican disunity on Obamacare to find a way to improve access to and the cost of health insurance.

Democrats could even let the Republicans take the credit by letting the resulting law be called Trumpcare or even Ryancare, after Wisconsin's own Speaker of the House. And here is a way to make a reality of this Utopian vision of everyone on Capitol Hill joining hands to sing Kumbaya for the greater good of the American people:

Have Trump say that he feels members of Congress should have no health insurance until a replacement for Obamacare is passed, and that then they must use the resulting plan. I'll bet that kind of personal self-interest would be a great bloody shirt to align the needs of our elected representatives with those of their constituents.

Essayist Avi Lank is a former reporter for the Milwaukee Sentinel and later the Journal Sentinel. He’s also coauthor of the recent book, The Man Who Painted the Universe.