Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Four years after Obamacare passed the House of Representatives, House Republicans are once again casting about for a "positive alternative" to a law so vile that the majority leader called it an "atrocity." Just imagine how many years it would take them to grapple with a law they merely disliked.

"You can't beat something with nothing," Republican Representative Tom Price told the Wall Street Journal. "More and more members are discussing the imperative for us to have a positive alternative."

One of the enduring comedies of the Barack Obama era is the Republican Party's perpetual state of deep think on health-care policy. The "alternative to Obamacare" story goes all the way back to November 2009, when House Republicans proposed their actual plan. It consisted mostly of medical malpractice limits, allowing insurance companies to sell policies across state lines (aka the "race to the bottom") and assorted Band-Aids. The Congressional Budget Office concluded the Republican plan would, over 10 years, bring 3 million Americans into the circle of the insured, leaving only 52 million still out in the cold.

Nice work, fellas!

Pretending Republicans are noodling over a health-care policy is, by now, a game enjoyed by both journalists and Republicans themselves. Yet the Journal reports today that the smooth path to a Republican alternative, which, like the horizon, is forever just over the next hill, has suddenly gotten bumpy. The political and systemic complexities of Obamacare have alerted Republicans to the perils of transforming the nation's complex health-insurance system. It seems it's not as easy, practically or politically, as it looks.

As a result, party leaders are now earnestly reconsidering the policies they never quite got around to thinking through in the first place, such as taxing people's employer-based insurance and disrupting the insurance market in other ways (without ever, of course, actually insuring the uninsured). "There's an acknowledgment that massive overturning of the employer-sponsored system is something people just aren't ready for," Republican economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin told the Journal.

It's a shame that right when Republicans were on the verge of producing a viable alternative, all these complications got in the way. Oh well, back to the drawing board.

(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)