Obamacare Got Their Goat: An Illustrated Guide to Republicans’ Metaphors


Assessment: After years of campaigning against it, Republicans probably did see the opportunity to repeal Obamacare as a gift. But as President Trump recently discovered, health policy is “so complicated.” Interlocking parts kind of make sense.

But while lawmakers like to cite the view from 30,000 feet, few puzzles are sold in 30,000 pieces. Even if one could be bought, a puzzle of that size may overwhelm all but the most hardy of puzzle masters, with the largest dining-room tables.

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Drew Ferguson: Goat

The metaphor: “The need for this process can best be explained by a story I’ve been telling my colleagues,” said Mr. Ferguson, a freshman congressman from Georgia, in a speech on the House floor. It must be relayed in its entirety: “A little over six years ago I lived in a pretty decent house. And one day I heard a knock on the door. Before I knew it, my colleagues from the other side of the aisle had let a goat loose in my house. Now for six years that goat has been messing in and destroying my house. I want to renovate my house, but before I can, I have to get the goat out of the house before it does any more damage. It makes no sense to start fixing up my house until we get the goat out. Voting for the fiscal year ’17 budget resolution gets this goat out of my house. Mr. Speaker, make no mistake, we must renovate our house.”

Assessment: Major points for vividness. Who wouldn’t want to expel a rampaging goat from a home before undertaking a renovation?

Republicans dislike Obamacare, but its record is more mixed and far less destructive than that of a wanton farm animal with an appetite for garbage and a tendency to defecate in bedclothes. The key political challenge for Republicans is devising a new health policy that preserves portions of Obamacare that have been successful and popular.

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Paul Ryan: Something on a sand castle?

Metaphor: “Obamacare is built on a house of sand that is quickly collapsing,” Mr. Ryan said to Charlie Rose in January.

Assessment: Mr. Ryan, the Speaker of the House, makes the task seem urgent. The health law may appear to be stable now, but it may fall along with its underlying house soon. This metaphor, probably a misquoting of Matthew 7:24, is confusing. Who builds something atop a sand castle? And Mr. Ryan’s image suggests that it is not Obamacare that’s in trouble, but the health care system that lies beneath it. His policy proposals don’t do much to change that system.

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Lamar Alexander: Bus ticket

Metaphor: “Obamacare is a bus ticket in a town with no buses,” Mr. Alexander, the chairman of the Senate committee on health, education, labor and pensions, said in a confirmation hearing for Tom Price, the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Assessment: The metaphor captures a key weakness of Obamacare’s new insurance markets: the limited choices some consumers face.

So far, however, everyone who wants an Obamacare plan can get one. Mr. Alexander leaves us to wonder about the destination the ticket holder hopes to reach. (Good health?)

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Michael Enzi: Bridge

“The Obamacare bridge is collapsing, and we’re sending in a rescue team,” the Senate Budget Committee chairman Michael Enzi said the night he voted to begin the Obamacare repeal process. “Then we’ll build new bridges to better health care, and finally, when those new bridges are finished, we’ll close the old bridge.”

Assessment: Mr. Enzi’s metaphor aims to explain Republicans’ complex strategy for replacing the health law: first, passing a budget bill to repeal major portions, then freezing current law in place for a time and finally establishing a new system. And he evokes infrastructure investment, something most members of Congress love.

But the metaphor highlights a central problem with the multi-step strategy. In this metaphorical world, the collapsing bridge will need to stay open for some time, even after the initial rescue.

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Various: Rug, possibly burning

Metaphor: “Nobody’s interested in pulling the rug out from under anybody,” Secretary Price said in his confirmation hearing.

Assessment: This talking point, adopted by many, many members of the G.O.P. caucus, is intended to reassure those happy with Obamacare that any changes brought by repealing it won’t upset them. Still, this popular metaphor is a poor match for the larger context of inflammatory language used to describe the health care law. If the rug is on fire, why would anyone want to keep standing on it?

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Patty Murray: Roof, possibly burning

Metaphor: “We can’t repair the roof while the Republicans are burning the house down,” Ms. Murray, the ranking member of the Senate committee on health, education, labor and pensions, told my colleague Robert Pear.

Assessment: Another home construction metaphor. Ms. Murray, a Democrat, reverses Mr. Ryan’s logic. In her formulation, Obamacare is the house in need of roof repairs. Ms. Murray, perhaps more than her rug-preserving colleagues across the aisle, seems to suggest the health law has already been ruined beyond repair.

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Ted Cruz: More cowbell

Metaphor: “I’m reminded of an old ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit with Christopher Walken where they are playing in a band, and he keeps ringing the cowbell,” Mr. Cruz, the Texas senator and former presidential candidate, said in a televised health care debate with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. “And every time they recorded, his solution is more cowbell, more cowbell. It was government control that messed this all up. And Bernie and the Democrats’ solution is more cowbell, more cowbell. Yes, it didn’t work when we said you wouldn’t get your plan canceled. Yes, it didn’t work when we said your premiums would be cut. But give government even more power.”

Assessment: Has Mr. Cruz seen the classic skit? Musical taste is, of course, subjective. But, to this reporter, the cowbell made the song. (And to be clear, Will Ferrell was the cowbell player.)

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