The heath care issue used to be fun for Republicans. They could make rousing speeches denouncing Obamacare for ruining the country, collect a lot of money from insurance companies, then go to Washington and vote to repeal or gut the Affordable Care Act, to sustained applause on the right wing airwaves.

During the Obama years, the party had a simple job: oppose Obama and everything he did. Then, pass some fanfare bills, like the ones repealing Obamacare, knowing that none of them would ever become law.

And so the show went on, and the cycle of speeches, fundraising, campaign ads and meaningless votes lasted for seven long years. It was a virtuoso performance of disingenuous righteousness, with a script full of the lies that gullible people were most eager to hear.

Well over a quarter of a billion dollars was spent on advertising attacking the Affordable Care Act. The House voted 54 times to kill the health care program. All of it was, as tea-party favorite Pat Meehan, R-Pennsylvania, recently acknowledged, largely “ceremonial.”

But the Republican base bought it hook, line and sinker. In the same way they now buy the lunatic idea that Trump can deliver American greatness, and return jobs made obsolete by changing technology, a constantly churning marketplace and new ideas.

Watching this show, all these years, and seeing it now in its final act, I almost feel sorry for my Republican friends who got so swept up in partisan group-think that they actually thought this drama was real. As the grizzled cowboys of the Old West might have said, “They rode that horse awful hard.” The problem is that now they’ve come to a dry watering hole, in the middle of a desert.

Being in the minority party is an easy thing, in some ways. You have a common enemy, and unity becomes the natural order. It helps paper over the differences within your own party. And there isn’t much heavy lifting, on the idea side. But, it can also make a party lazy, and ill-prepared to lead.

Somewhere along the way, the health care issue got a lot more complicated for Republicans. Millions of people signed up for health care. The public has been slowly warming to the idea. And it’s particularly popular among the working class folks that Republicans have been trying to peel away from Democrats.

Repealing it, no matter how you spin it, is going to throw millions of Americans off their health care plans, and cost everyone else more money.

Astute Republican strategists have seen this trainwreck coming for a while. So they urged the party, a few years back, to replace its “repeal” language with “repeal and replace.” That may have been smart politics, but it did nothing to move the party to work on a real plan of its own.

Republicans now have big political problems on the horizon. In safe red states, they can get away with throwing millions of people off their health care plan. But in the rest of the country, it’s a ticking time bomb, and they know it.

At the root of the problem is the fact that there are two irreconcilable views on health care among Republicans, and no amount of showboat bills in the House of Representatives, or giddy celebrations at the White House, will bring those two sides any closer.

One group of pragmatic and more moderate Republicans, particularly in swing states, is fearful about what a repeal will mean to their careers, and they should be. If anything like the current House plan somehow gets to the President’s desk, many of them will be gone after the next election.

But the bulk of Congressional Republicans are, and they have always been, in the “let them eat cake” camp. They want a return of the “system” that was in place before Obamacare. For those who need a refresher, here’s how that works. If you want health care, buy it. If you can’t afford it, go to a hospital and stick them with the bill, which the rest of us will be forced to pay for in higher health care and premium costs.

In other words, accept the fact that if you can’t pay for decent health care, and don’t have an affordable employer plan, you and your kids are going to be sicker and die younger than the rich, the powerful, and the more fortunate.

What we do about health care, as a society, is a deeper question that transcends politics. Should health care be available to all Americans, or do we want a country in which it is only accessible to people with money?

Alan Caron, a Waterville native, is the principle of Caron Communications and the author of “Maine’s Next Economy” (2015) and “Reinventing Maine Government” (2010). He can be reached at: [email protected]

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