Washington Post’s scorekeepers deliver a game-changer on Obamacare

Obamacare is once again the center of attention in Washington this week, thanks to a Congressional Budget Office report (PDF) that was too nuanced for many to accurately write about. There is a deluge of day-after stories on how journalists were once again blinded by big numbers (no, 2.3 million jobs are not being eliminated), but what struck me was the Tuesday column by the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank — who “writes about political theater in the nation’s capital”) — titled “Obamacare’s Scorekeepers Deliver a Game-Changer.”

An excerpt:

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The congressional number-crunchers, perhaps the capital’s closest thing to a neutral referee, came out with a new report Tuesday, and it wasn’t pretty for Obamacare. The CBO predicted the law would have a “substantially larger” impact on the labor market than it had previously expected: The law would reduce the workforce in 2021 by the equivalent of 2.3 million full-time workers, well more than the 800,000 originally anticipated. This will inevitably be a drag on economic growth, as more people decide government handouts are more attractive than working more and paying higher taxes.

Government handouts. This is the phrase that opponents of the Affordable Care Act hope will stick long after people tune out the numbers on how many people work fewer hours or leave the labor force. (Matthew Yglesias: “Obamacare will kill jobs in the same way that Social Security kills jobs. By making it easier for people in certain circumstances to get by without a job.”)

Milbank is snidely referring to a lot of people here, but they include parents who will cut their working hours to spend more time at home with children now that their health insurance is more affordable. They include people who will start their own businesses, or retire a year or two early, because they can now afford insurance on the individual market. A large share of this group will pay hundreds of dollars a month for insurance through Affordable Care Act exchanges, even with government subsidies. (Conservatives are still sharing stories implying that premiums are too high under this “government handout” law.) They hardly fit the “welfare queen” stereotype associated with Milbank’s phrase.

I don’t know how carefully Milbank chose his words. He may have followed the lead of the Post’s straight news story on the CBO report.* That story explicitly labeled the “handout” charge as a Republican talking point: “Republicans hailed the report as fresh evidence that the law will decimate the American workforce, encouraging people to forgo private employment in favor of taxpayer handouts.”

*On Wednesday, the story had a correction: “The headline of an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the CBO study estimated that health law will result in 2 million fewer jobs. The CBO says the health law will lead to 2 million fewer workers.” The Post’s Erik Wimple also has a round-up on the fact-checking and the many corrected headlines concerning the CBO report. It does not include Fox News, which, as of this writing, still has “ObamaCare could lead to loss of nearly 2.3 million US jobs, report says” on its website.

Chris Cillizza, editor of the Post’s political blog The Fix, got around to a good summary of the CBO findings in his Tuesday column. (“The 2 million figure is actually a decline in the labor supply, meaning people not putting themselves out into the workforce as opposed to 2 million jobs being eliminated.”) But he still concluded that the report was likely to help Republicans trying to make the 2014 elections all about Obamacare (forget immigration reform), writing, “this CBO report gives them a major arrow in that quiver.” He also tweeted, “This CBO story is big trouble for Democrats on the ballot in 2014.”

One question: Will Republican congressional candidates have the chutzpah to superimpose the 2 million figure over black-and-white photos of shuttered factory gates?

Or will the “handout” charge take precedence? Think of conservative bête noire Lena Dunham. What a killer commercial it would be to show her Girls character cutting back her hours at a Brooklyn coffeehouse to spend more time writing self-indulgent stories, thanks to her subsidized health insurance. Does America need 2 million more bloggers? could be the tagline. (Admittedly, Hannah's  job may be among those to disappear entirely if she walks away from it. There are some jobs that wouldn't be filled, just not 2 million of them.)

The idea of insurance coverage as a handout does make sense politically. It could drive a wedge between voters who have already been getting generous insurance plans subsidized by their employers and deadbeats looking for equivalent coverage in the individual market. Also, “handouts” goes well with insurance company “bailouts,” even if the latter term is also of questionable validity.

Back to Milbank:

This is grim news for the White House and for Democrats on the ballot in November. This independent arbiter, long embraced by the White House, has validated a core complaint of the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) critics: that it will discourage work and become an ungainly entitlement. Disputing Republicans’ charges is much easier than refuting the federal government’s official scorekeepers.

That’s not quite true. The Democrats will have to refute the Republicans’ (and the Dana Milbanks’) characterization of the CBO report, not the CBO report itself.

Photo of Brooklyn's threatened labor force from HBO's Girls.

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