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A Word Not Uttered by Republican Officials at the Convention: Obamacare

ImageMitt Romney at the 2012 Republican National Convention. Republicans used the term Obamacare 23 times in the prime-time viewing hours in that convention. 
Credit…Damon Winter/The New York Times

In 2012, right in the middle of his convention speech, Mitt Romney declared the repeal of Obamacare a crucial priority. It was part of his five-part plan for a “better future.”

“We must rein in the skyrocketing cost of health care by repealing and replacing Obamacare,” he said.

Four years later, there was little doubt that Donald J. Trump would also mention the health law: “We will repeal and replace disastrous Obamacare!” he declared to roaring applause.

This week, Mr. Trump didn’t mention Obamacare at all in his convention speech. The word that rallied Republican voters for nearly a decade has barely been uttered. It came up precisely once during the convention, during a speech by Natalie Harp, a cancer survivor who is not an elected official.

In the 2012 and 2016 G.O.P. conventions, repealing Obamacare was a central, almost obligatory part of every political speech, a goal shared by every candidate, a priority of almost every Republican voter.

The term Obamacare, originally conceived by Republicans to diminish its popularity, has been used less often among Democratic politicians, though President Obama himself ultimately embraced it.

Republicans used the term Obamacare 23 times in 2012 and 13 times in 2016, during the prime-time evening hours (transcripts show no mentions of the Affordable Care Act at the 2012, 2016 or 2020 conventions). Speakers usually referred to it in calls for repeal. This year, there were no calls for repeal, just a claim from Ms. Harp that the Affordable Care Act caused expensive insurance premiums.

The 2010 health care law expanded health coverage, barred insurers from discriminating against patients with pre-existing health conditions and made numerous other changes to the way health care is delivered and financed. The desire to upend it has not abated much among Republican voters.

“Nothing has changed in general about how the Republican base feels about the Affordable Care Act: They still oppose it,” said Mollyann Brodie, an executive vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation, who manages the health research firm’s survey operation.

But in previous conventions, Republican politicians saw a potential path to deliver Obamacare repeal: Take control of Washington. When Ted Cruz, a few months from winning his Texas Senate seat, asked the crowd at the 2012 convention, “Can we repeal Obamacare?” he got a resounding “yes” in response.

The answer in 2020, however, is most likely no: Republicans tried and failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act after gaining control of the White House in 2017 (they already controlled the House and the Senate). Their proposed replacement bill was deeply unpopular. And they lost control of the House in 2018 after a campaign in which Democrats hammered their health care record.

“It would make no sense to argue over spilled milk,” said Josh Holmes, a Republican strategist and president of the consulting firm Cavalry, who came up with the “repeal and replace” slogan. “It’s pretty well documented that they took a run at it, came one vote short of repealing Obamacare, and then pretty quickly turned the page.”

Democrats seem happy to continue talking about the Affordable Care Act. The law was never as popular among their voters as it was unpopular among Republicans. Polls show overall approval ratings have inched up slowly in recent years, ever since Democrats fended off repeal efforts. And a pending lawsuit before the Supreme Court, supported by the Trump administration, could wipe the law off the books, increasing the urgency to defend it.

At the Democratic convention this month, there were seven mentions of the “Affordable Care Act,” a shortened version of the bill’s official name, compared with two in 2012 and six in 2016. The Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, used his speech to warn that, in a Trump administration, “the assault on the Affordable Care Act will continue until it’s destroyed.”

In using the term, he made a bit of history: He is the first Democratic presidential nominee to mention the Affordable Care Act in a convention speech.

“Obamacare” did get mentioned once at the Democratic convention — in a video about the long friendship between Mr. Biden and John McCain, the senator and former Republican presidential nominee, who died two years ago.

After his widow, Cindy McCain, lamented the loss of bipartisan leadership, the narrator recalled that “it was Joe’s friend who saved Obamacare by crossing the aisle.”

Credit…Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

In 2012:

“We must rein in the skyrocketing cost of health care by repealing and replacing Obamacare.” — Mitt Romney, presidential nominee

“The greatest threat to Medicare is Obamacare, and we’re going to stop it.” — Paul Ryan, vice-presidential nominee

“Elect Mitt Romney so we can repeal Obamacare.” — Paul Ryan

“He will roll back Obamacare, starting on Day 1.” — Kelly Ayotte, U.S. senator

“Can we repeal Obamacare?” — Ted Cruz, U.S. Senate candidate

“It is time to repeal Obamacare.” — Pam Bondi, Florida’s attorney general

In 2016:

“We’re going to elect … a president who will repeal and replace Obamacare.” — Donald Trump Jr.

“She championed Obamacare.” — Mike Pence, vice-presidential nominee

“A Clinton presidency only means more debt, more Obamacare.” — Donald J. Trump, presidential nominee

“We will repeal and replace disastrous Obamacare.” — Donald J. Trump

In 2020:

“We wouldn’t have health plans up to 60 percent cheaper than Obamacare, and we’d still be stuck with that infamous individual mandate.” — Natalie Harp, cancer survivor

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