GOP goes off-message on Obamacare
By: David Nather
October 1, 2013 06:31 PM EDT
The Obamacare train wreck happened Tuesday — and Republicans were chasing a different train.
By walking into a government shutdown that’s dominating the news coverage, some Republicans are realizing they blew their chance to shine a spotlight on all the website crashes and breakdowns that plagued the first day of Obamacare signup.
There was plenty of material for the Republicans to work with. The federal health insurance exchange website gave users error messages, drop-down menus failed, and the system went down for a while on Tuesday morning. State exchange websites got snarled by heavy traffic and spat out error messages, too.
President Barack Obama said it was all because the volume of customers was higher than the administration ever expected — and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told MSNBC that it was “sort of a great problem to have.” And the reality is, if the glitches get sorted out in the next few days, they may not have a lasting impact on the public’s perception of Obamacare at all.
But even if the technical difficulties turn out to be proof of how popular Obamacare is, the reality is that the administration looked unprepared for an opening day that it has known about for three and a half years.
So what have the Republicans been talking about all day? The government shutdown.
Thanks to the drama of that political stalemate, as well as the bitter volleys between Obama and GOP leaders, there’s really no way any other story could have dominated the news coverage Tuesday. There were also lots of stories about the Obamacare meltdowns — but they became a sidebar, not the theme of the day.
Instead of using those stories to prove their point that Obamacare’s not ready for prime time, Republicans spent the day staging photo ops with GOP negotiators pretending to wait for Democrats to come to the table — and strategizing to figure out how to get themselves out of the budget mess.
It was a missed opportunity, some Republicans said, to get traction off of what should have been the easiest news cycle in the world for them. And there is bitter irony that a shutdown aimed at derailing Obamacare took attention from what may have been a realistic motivator for Republicans to build support for … derailing Obamacare.
“The shutdown has completely gotten in the way of the message of Obamacare not working,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, a Capitol Hill veteran.
“If there were no government shutdown, Republicans could train all their fire on the failures of the exchanges in a ‘see, I told you so’ approach,” said Bonjean. Instead, he said, “the Republicans are having to fight a two-front war for public opinion — on the government shutdown and Obamacare — when they would rather be focused on the Obamacare rollout.”
Some Republicans on Capitol Hill worried about the timing of the shutdown. “I do sort of regret that this message is getting confused with the rollout,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss. “It’s going to be a disaster for consumers,” he said, but “I’m afraid less attention may be paid to it.”
And even GOP strategists who say the Obamacare breakdowns will still get plenty of attention — which is true, judging from the cable news stories highlighting glitches and frustrated customers — complain that Republicans would have been better advised not to step on their own message.
“It would have been smarter and better if the Republicans had stayed focused on Obamacare,” said GOP strategist Ari Fleischer. But at the same time, he said, “It’s not the old era where you have one headline a day and one news cycle a day … Both stories are punching through.”
Republicans and conservatives say their ultimate goal is to convince Americans that Obamacare will hurt in broader ways — by putting a drag on the economy, driving up premiums for individual health insurance, and limiting their choices of doctors and treatments.
Still, they’ve also been warning for months that Obamacare isn’t ready for prime time — and Tuesday’s breakdowns seemed to play right into their hands.
Obama administration officials spent the day putting the best face on the glitches, by insisting that the systems were just overloaded by all the people trying to sign up.
As of late Tuesday, officials said, 2.8 million unique visitors had visited the HealthCare.gov website, the main gateway to the 36 health insurance exchanges that are fully or partially run by the feds. They also said there were 81,000 calls to the Obamacare call center and 60,000 live chats. But they didn’t release any figures on how many people had actually enrolled.
But because of the shutdown, Obama didn’t spend the day on the defensive. At a Rose Garden event Tuesday afternoon, he shifted all the attention to House Republicans, accusing them of demanding “ransom just for doing their job” and calling it “strange that one party would make keeping people uninsured the centerpiece of their agenda.”
There has been plenty of support from tea party groups for the House Republicans’ confrontational tactics — but some have been quietly advocating a different approach.
Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, one of the leading tea party groups, said he wouldn’t criticize the GOP strategy. But he noted that his group has tried to stay focused on the main message: educating the public about Obamacare’s impact on premiums and the economy.
“We’re focused on the specific impact that Obamacare will have … and just how unprepared the administration is. And it’s not going to get better — it’s only going to get worse,” Phillips said. “That’s the approach we’ve taken. It suits our model.”
“There are lots of ways to get to repeal, and this is the way we think will work best,” Phillips said.
Ultimately, Republicans say they’ll regain their footing and will be able to turn the public’s focus back to Obamacare’s problems — which they believe will go beyond a few first-day technical glitches.
Republican strategist Kevin Madden said there had been “a few missed messaging opportunities,” but insisted it won’t matter in the long run because there will be plenty of other chances to talk about economic damage and health care disruption caused by the law.
“The best way to break through with voters is not to just tell them, but to show them,” Madden said. “We’re better off showing voters that Obamacare will have a disastrous impact on the economy and our health care system, instead of just telling them with speeches from the floor of the House or the Senate.”