clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How Obamacare (almost) convinced a tea partier to vote for Clinton

There's an old line that a conservative is a liberal who got mugged. But maybe a liberal is just a conservative who signed up for Obamacare.

A video from YouTube user Hot Lead retired has gone a bit viral in recent weeks. Hot Lead retired is James Webb, a 50-something tea partier who tends to post videos with headlines like "Hillbilly gun shooting rampage video" and "Ferguson. A cesspool." Webb says he is, as you might expect, a lifelong Republican. But on April 13, he posted something unexpected: "This Tea Party Patriot May Vote For Hillary." The reason? Obamacare.

"I ask myself which party has helped me the most in the last 15 years, 20," Webb said. "And it was the Democrat Party. The Democrats. If it wasn't for Obama and that Obamacare, I would still be working. With Obamacare I got to retire at age 50."

Webb goes on to talk about the life Obamacare has afforded him. His insurance plan has a wellness program that's gotten him to the gym. He's spending his time working out, swimming, trying to lose some weight. "I'm leaning toward voting for Hillary unless something major comes up," he says. "I don't trust the Republicans because they want to repeal Obamacare, and then I have to go to work again."

"The Republican Party, they ain't done nothing for me, man, nothing," he says, a bit sadly.

A few days later, he posted "This Me Party Patriot May vote for Hillary Part 2." "I've had a lot of people watch my video the last few days," he says with a rueful chuckle. Then he rambles for a bit about the election calendar and primaries, and concludes: "I've decided not to vote for Hillary in 2016." The second clip has the look and feel of a hostage tape.

You could write a poli-sci dissertation on these videos. There's just so much going on here that explains the deep strangeness of contemporary American politics. For instance:

The weird generational politics of Obamacare

Obamacare is a particularly good deal for older Americans: the law basically forces young people to buy health insurance in order to make premiums affordable for older, sicker folks. Folks like Webb, who mentions he's got some medical problems.

In a crude way, you would expect the fight over Obamacare to feature older Americans advocating for the law and younger Americans fighting against it. But the reverse has been true because the Republican Party broadly, and the tea party specifically, skew older than the country at large, while the Democratic Party skews younger.

There are policy crosscurrents that help make sense of some of this: young Americans, because they're poorer, get a lot of the law's subsidies. And Obamacare cuts money from Medicare, which angers retirees, and raises taxes on richer people, who tend to be older. So the simple generational analysis only gets you so far. But as Webb's experience shows, it does get you somewhere. Obamacare is an amazing deal for people in their 50s who need health insurance.

It is incredibly uncomfortable to be on the wrong side of your tribe

Webb's quick reversal is telling. He doesn't walk back anything he said in his first video. He doesn't say Obamacare hasn't been a boon to his life or that he wants it repealed. He just says a lot of people watched the first video. The implication in his astonished chuckle is that he's gotten more and angrier feedback than he expected — he's been lashed by the people he thinks of as his allies and praised by the people he considers his enemies.

It's an excruciating experience to find yourself at odds with your political tribe. So, for most people, it's actually borderline irrational to pick fights with your side. Webb's vote in the 2016 presidential election isn't going to save Obamacare or doom it; his vote will have no effect on his life at all. But publicly coming out as a Hillary Clinton supporter when he attends the next meeting of his local Tea Party Patriots chapter? He'll be attacked by his friends, kicked out of a group he loves, smeared on the internet. His public heterodoxy can really hurt his life. It's not rational for him to announce he's voting for Hillary Clinton. Policy interests matter, but they're much more remote from us than our friends, family, and even our email inbox.

Get the government's hands off my Obamacare!

The most peculiar part of Webb's presentation is how at odds it is with, well, everything else on his site. His Ferguson video, for instance, calls the city a "cesspool" because of "generations upon generations upon generations of living off the government."

Meanwhile, his whole argument for Obamacare is that it taxes and regulates other people in order to make it possible for Webb to retire at 50. He notes that if not for Obamacare, he would have to wait until age 65, when he could get Medicare. So where Webb spends one video criticizing the residents of Ferguson for living off the government, he is simultaneously organizing his life around the availability of government-run health insurance programs.

There have been many jokes about tea partiers holding up signs saying "Get the government's hands off my Medicare!" but Webb's videos show how that thinking will eventually come to protect Obamacare, too. Webb is deeply critical of the people he thinks are living off the government. He proudly says he's never taken disability or welfare or food stamps. But he's now terrified that someone in the government will take away his Obamacare.

Americans are nothing if not good at drawing the fine-grained distinctions that show that the government programs other people get are welfare, but the government programs they get are simply what they are owed.

How Obamacare reduces the labor supply

A while back, the Congressional Budget Office caused some controversy by estimating that Obamacare would lead to fewer jobs by reducing the labor supply. This led a lot of people to call Obamacare a job killer, but what it really meant was that Obamacare was a retirement encourager. Or, in budget language, "workers will choose to supply less labor."

Webb is one of those workers choosing to supply less labor. Obamacare is making it possible for him to retire early, so he's retiring early. In some kind of narrow economic view, this is a bad thing. But in a broader view of human flourishing, it's a very good thing. The point of life isn't just to work. The point of living in a rich country isn't just to make it richer.

As Webb says in a video response to a YouTube commenter telling him to "get off your lazy ass and work," "Who the heck are you to decide whether 50 is acceptable? Like I said 100 times before, you might want to work until you die, or until you're 70, but I'm not going to be one of those people that retire in a nursing home while somebody spoon-feeds you applesauce and they're getting your retirement to pay for it all. I'm not going to do it."

This is a great quote to think about when you read people proposing to raise the Social Security retirement age.

Obamacare isn't going to get repealed

Webb is a rare participant in the Obamacare wars: he recognizes that the health care he's getting is coming through Obamacare, he's a tea partier who realizes Republicans want to take away a benefit he relies on, and he's making YouTube videos trying to work through the cognitive dissonance. But what's not rare is his basic situation: he's one of millions of people getting insurance through Obamacare.

It's all well and good for Republicans to talk in the abstract about repealing Obamacare. But if Jeb Bush or Scott Walker takes office and actually tries to repeal Obamacare, they'll be throwing those millions of people off their insurance. The public outcry will be immense — Republicans who loved hitting Obama for saying "If you like your health care, you can keep it" will now be ripping health care away from millions of people.

Which is why they're not going to do it. This, of course, is where the idea of "repeal and replace" comes in — maybe they can replace Obamacare with something that isn't Obamacare but also doesn't hurt people like Webb! But replacing Obamacare with anything even remotely acceptable to most of the people on Obamacare is going to be such a brutal, bitter process requiring so many unpopular tradeoffs and with such a high risk of failure that it's very unlikely a new Republican president is going to want to exhaust his political capital on it.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.