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Republicans say their midnight vote was about bridge building. Actually, it was bridge burning.

- January 12, 2017

Republicans in the Senate voted Wednesday night on a bill that would significantly accelerate the repeal of key elements of the Affordable Care Act (commonly called Obamacare) through reconciliation. As Republican Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) has acknowledged, this will almost certainly mean that Republicans will effectively get rid of the health-care law before coming up with a replacement. On the face of it, this seems like terrible politics. If Obamacare looks like it is unraveling, insurance companies are likely to pull out quickly, potentially leaving millions of people without health insurance and leaving Republicans with the blame. It’s a very risky gamble, but one that may have a strategic logic behind it.

The Republicans are burning their bridges

GOP Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) has defended the Republican strategy as an exercise in bridge building. He told the New York Times: “The Obamacare bridge is collapsing, and we’re sending in a rescue team. . . . Then we’ll build new bridges to better health care, and finally, when these new bridges are finished, we’ll close the old bridge.” Actually, they’re burning the bridges behind them so that they have no choice but to fight. The recently deceased game theorist Thomas Schelling describes the strategy of bridge burning as follows, in his classic book “Arms and Influence”:

Often, we must maneuver into a position where we no longer have much choice left. This is the old business of burning bridges. If you are faced with an enemy who thinks you would turn and run if he kept advancing, and if the bridge is there to run across, he may keep advancing. . . . But if you burn the bridge so that you cannot retreat, and in sheer desperation there is nothing you can do but defend yourself, he has a new calculation to make.

Avinash Dixit and Barry Nalebuff expand on this basic idea to note that bridge-burning may have two benefits. First, it unites your own forces. They have to fight because they know that there is no alternative — desertion or retreat is no longer a possibility. Second, it may cause the enemy to retreat, because they know that they face a truly determined opponent, who has no choice but to fight.

Republican leaders are deliberately backing their party into a corner

This plausibly explains why key Republicans want to repeal Obamacare before replacing it. They are burning the bridges behind themselves. Republicans don’t have any agreed plan to replace Obamacare (Paul Krugman has argued that this is no accident, because any possible replacement would be horribly unpopular). Thus, they face the risk of their anti-Obamacare coalition falling apart, as Republicans start to fight among themselves, and Democrats pick off the weaker members of the pack.

Repealing before replacing might possibly forestall the rout. First, it might stiffen Republicans’ backs. If they cannot retreat to a tacit acceptance of Obamacare — since Obamacare is gone, they may be more likely to stick together and agree on a replacement. Even if that replacement is going to be very unpopular, it probably would be less unpopular than getting rid of Obamacare and replacing it with nothing.

Second, it might help peel off Democrats. The Democrats’ leader in the Senate, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), has sworn that Democrats will not compromise with Republicans on any Obamacare replacement. Republican leaders are probably thinking that the Democrats’ calculus will change if they are faced with a choice between a feeble replacement and no replacement.

This is incredibly risky

As Schelling, Dixit and Nalebuff suggest, burning bridges might help the Republicans get out of the trap that they have created themselves. It may both stiffen Republicans’ resolve and make their adversaries more likely to retreat.

Yet as these scholars probably would point out, this is still an extremely risky strategy. Burning your bridges so that you have no hope of retreat means that you risk losing all your forces if you are defeated. It also may be highly unpopular with the troops. Republicans in the House seem to be very nervous about the idea of repealing without replacing. Senate Republicans like Collins also look to be unhappy. Finally, President-elect Donald Trump has promised that his administration will somehow come up with an Obamacare replacement in short order — although it is unclear what that may be.