Obamacare Woes Put Shutdown Rationale in New Light

Obamacare Woes Put Shutdown Rationale in New Light

By Carl M. Cannon - November 4, 2013

For many Republicans, the most frustrating aspect of the government shutdown that lasted from Oct. 1 to Oct. 16 wasn't that it was a fight that couldn't really be won. Nor was it that the Republican Party took almost all the blame, even though President Obama and congressional Democrats were just as intransigent as Tea Party conservatives.

No, their real gripe was that the entire drama obscured the bungled rollout of the Democrats’ precious Affordable Care Act. All GOP lawmakers really needed to do to underscore the shortcomings of this law, they said, was nothing.

For three years Republicans warned that this contraption was so bulky and poorly built that it would have trouble getting off the ground—and that Americans would hate it. Ignored or marginalized by the media, these critics are now having their say.

“We’ve been warning that these things were going to happen since 2009,” said Kirsten Kukowski, the press secretary for the Republican National Committee.

“This law is a mess,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said on the eve of the rollout. “It needs to go. It’s way past time to start over.”

By way of response, Obama mocked conservatives for their “crazy” pessimism. “The closer we get, the more desperate they get,” he said. “The Republicans’ biggest fear at this point is not that the Affordable Care Act will fail. What they’re worried about is it’s going to succeed.”

What a difference a month makes.

“Hold me accountable for the debacle,” Kathleen Sebelius told Congress last week. That’s the word she used: “debacle.”

Ostensibly, the HHS secretary was talking about the poorly designed $600 million website portal that doesn’t let uninsured Americans actually sign up for health coverage. But that’s hardly the administration’s only Obamacare-related public relations disaster. Millions of Americans are getting notices—or are about to get notices—that because of the law their existing health insurance policy is being canceled. This makes the president look like a liar because it’s precisely what he promised would not happen. Meanwhile, many other Americans have been informed that, because of the ACA, they will be subjected to steep increases in their monthly premiums.

Some Democratic incumbents are content to tell Obamacare’s critics to “get over it,” as Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky did last week. That is the bluster of a congresswoman representing a suburban Chicago district where no Democrat could lose—unless challenged by a more liberal opponent in a primary election. So Schakowsky boasts a 100 percent ACLU rating, a 100 percent Americans for Democratic Action rating—and wins re-election by a landslide every two years.

But Democrats in the four dozen truly competitive congressional districts in this country—and in the Senate races in America’s “purple” states—do not have that luxury. And they do not sound too sanguine.

Eleven Senate Democrats, most of whom face re-election next year, officially requested a postponement of the March 31 deadline when all Americans must show proof they have health care insurance. Under an administration schedule, next October insurance companies are required to offer another round of coverage options—with an almost inevitable rise in premiums.

This will occur weeks before Election Day 2014, something not lost on political operatives. “What genius came up with that timetable?” one key Democrat asked of Huffington Post editorial director Howard Fineman.

How fast the conventional wisdom can change. Only three weeks ago, the liberal commentariat —joined by some hand-wringing Republicans—proclaimed the death of Tea Party, but not before it had stampeded the GOP over the precipice of extremism.

Yet, in our fast-moving world, the government shutdown of 2013 already seems an afterthought. The Affordable Care Act, by contrast, is not going anywhere. For those who do want to re-litigate the shutdown, the underlying rationale of the recalcitrant House Republicans, and their much-maligned Senate allies, suddenly doesn’t look so idiosyncratic.

The president and his political advisers know this. Their strategy is to counterattack by blaming Republican foot-dragging for some of Obamacare’s shortcomings.

“It’s very disturbing to see that the website hasn’t performed as well as we would like,” Rep. Xavier Becerra, a Democrat from Los Angeles, said after emerging from a White House briefing. “I think it's even more disturbing when individuals intentionally work against the American people and the rights that they have now secured to access quality, affordable health care.”

This was the Democrats’ talking point, repeated many times in the congressional hearing where Kathleen Sebelius offered her limited mea culpa. It’s a point well-taken—or, at least, it’s a legitimate question to raise: Could this legislation have been better written if Republicans had participated in shaping it, instead of merely fighting it?

Still, given how much he has been reviled, the last word should probably go to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who believed shutting down the federal government was preferable to GOP acquiescence to Obamacare’s implementation.

“All the people a few weeks ago [were] saying there is no way you can win this fight,” he told Greta Van Susteren. “They also said there is no way any D’s are going to flip. We are starting to see Democrats flip as this thing—it’s a train wreck—it’s not working. In any political fight, when the truth is on your side, you are in a good situation.” 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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