October 25, 2013
W. James Antle III
Forget everything you have read or seen about the Republicans doomed fight against the president’s signature health care reform law. According to an internal memo from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s office that leaked to the media, the defund Obamacare strategy was a smashing success.
The gambit “intensified the nation’s focus on Obamacare.” It “energized Americans by showing there are people in Washington willing to take real action to stop Obamacare.” It “exposed, for all to see, the Democrats’ refusal to compromise out of blind devotion to their extreme liberal agenda,” while Republicans stood firm in their “resolve to defeat Obamacare.”
Outside Cruz’s office, the picture looks somewhat different. The government shutdown ended not with a bang but a whimper. Perfectly symbolizing the futility of the whole exercise, Republicans failed to extract the one meaningful concession they could have gained on Obamacare—repealing the medical-devices tax—largely because of internal divisions within the party.
Even though furloughed federal employees have returned to work, the post-shutdown polling on the GOP remains bleak. A CNN poll found  that 54 percent view Republican control of the House as a bad thing. An ABC News/Washington Post poll found  that 77 percent disapproved of the party’s handling of the fiscal stalemate. Even Rasmussen shows  a healthy Democratic lead in the generic congressional ballot.
The good news for Republicans is that the problems with Obamacare seem likely to last longer than the aftershocks of the shutdown. While Cruz’s stand will long be remembered by activists in both parties, it will be ancient history to most voters by November 2014. If that sounds farfetched, consider how little you hear about Syria—once a ubiquitous news story and nearly a U.S. war—mere weeks after the congressional vote was scuttled.
Moreover, it is possible that Obamacare’s problems could get more serious than Healthcare.gov’s troubled rollout. Enrollment may be less than it needs to be for the exchanges to be viable. Many people, particularly the young and healthy, are seeing premium increases that far exceed the individual mandate’s penalties.
For Republicans, campaigning against Obamacare in the midterms will be the easy part. Even under the best case scenario for the Affordable Care Act—the technical glitches are fixed on time, enrollment proceeds apace and many consumers are happy with their new coverage—the law will produce enough losers to sustain a constituency for repeal.
Obamacare’s worst case scenario—the exchanges never enroll enough people without preexisting conditions to be viable, resulting in a premium “death spiral”—would be a fiasco no amount of media spin could possibly obscure. Even many liberal outlets have been scathing in their coverage of Obamacare’s problems as it is.
The Democrats had no problem running against the Iraq war in 2006, by which time conditions had deteriorated to the point that the Bush administration’s talking points sounded as unrealistic as Baghdad Bob’s. This was despite the fact that large numbers of Democrats were complicit in the war, with half the party’s senators, most of its leaders, and both men on its 2004 presidential ticket voting for the authorization of force.
No congressional Republicans voted for the Affordable Care Act. And while mainstream Democrats shunned attempts to defund the Iraq war, a continuing resolution defunding Obamacare passed the House and won the support of conservative senators. Consequently, no one will seriously question the GOP’s standing to run against the law’s adverse consequences.
Governing is more difficult than campaigning, however. If Obamacare’s implementation problems persist through November, it is possible that the administration might contemplate a targeted delay in the individual mandate, such as by waiving the penalty in states where the website isn’t functioning properly.
Would Republicans go along with such measures, seeing them as at least a partial fulfillment of their proposal—passed by the House—to delay the mandate? Or would they view cooperating with the president on a possible fix to his controversial law as giving aid and comfort to the enemy?
This brings us back to the Cruz memo. For some Republicans, fighting the Democrats seems to be its own reward. Lawmakers who are reluctant to join in are ridiculed for their cowardice. Just as no schoolboy wishes to be called a chicken, no Republican incumbent can afford to be called a “RINO”—Republican In Name Only—in the Tea Party era.
Perhaps they could instead take a page out of Obama’s playbook. The president has frequently snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by simply letting his opponents implode. The GOP has at times seemed to be a party bent on self-immolation. But for the moment, Obamacare is immolating the Democrats.
Why not get out of the way, or better yet capitalize on the Democrats’ newfound willingness to delay still more parts of the rickety law? The only answer is that it may not be as emotionally satisfying as grander gestures, especially in a party whose congressional wing is crammed with 2016 presidential contenders.
In the debate over Obamacare, the shutdown itself will be a blip. It’s the attitude that led to the shutdown—or at least the conviction that Republicans could win the shutdown—that has the potential to create lingering problems.