October 31, 2013

With some skittish Democrats suggesting Obamacare delays to deal with the website’s awful problems, I asked a senior administration official how worried the White House is about the possibility of serious Dem defections from the law.

“The key is to fix the website,” the official replied. “Everything flows from that.”

I hope that Democrats get this message, because it’s important. If the Web site gets fixed, and if enrollment numbers end up being tolerably decent – say, at a level both sides can spin as a victory for themselves — the current problems will be forgotten, and the law will probably be okay.  If the Web site isn’t fixed by the time we enter the new year and the March 31st enrollment deadline looms, then a delay will actually be required. The law’s long term prospects may be seriously threatened; all political bets will be off; and any positioning Dems did right now just won’t matter.

All of which is to say, again, that all that really matters in the long run is whether the policy works.

There’s no minimizing the political problems the web site is currently creating for Dems, and it remains possible that the politics of Obamacare could get significantly worse. But one possibility that no one seems to be entertaining is that the current battle could end up seriously backfiring on Republicans. If the web site does get fixed — and if demand proves to be such that enough people enroll – what do Republicans say at that point?

Republicans will have spent weeks expressing outrage on behalf of Americans who have been unable to tap into the benefits of Obamacare because of administration incompetence, and on behalf of people who are “losing” coverage because of outrageous liberal Big Government overreach. At that point, though, the web site will be working, and untold numbers of people will be shopping for real, tangible plans. Many on the individual market will find plans that are better, and potentially even cheaper overall — whether because of subsidies, or because the plans don’t disguise their true long term cost, as the current, crappy ones do – than their previous ones. None of this is a given, obviously; again, it all turns on whether the law works.

But if it does, what is the Republican argument at that point? Continue to push for full repeal, which would wipe away the benefits that these Americans — the very same people Republicans were professing to speak for in expressing outrage over the web site — are now enjoying?

Presumably they would continue to call for repeal — the base won’t accept anything less — and continue to offer up their alternatives. Jonathan Cohn explains the problems with the GOP approach and why it would lead to more instability and more uninsured. But beyond this, as Brian Beutler details, Republicans can’t even achieve consensus on their alternatives, so the de facto Republican position is to return to the old system.

Polls show that disapproval of Obamacare is real, but that it doesn’t translate into support for full repeal or for Republican tactics to undermine the law. I believe the totality of the polling suggests that the middle of the country, while uncertain and confused about Obamacare, doesn’t want to return to the old system, and is taking a long enough view to allow that the law should be given at least a chance to work. If it does, how will the snarling GOP jihad against the law play at that point?

I don’t know how long public patience will last on Obamacare. Perhaps the fuse is very short. And the possibility that Obamacare will fail — creating a political disaster for Dems — remains real. But Republicans seem absolutely certain that this will inevitably be a long term political bonanza for them, and that there’s simply no chance the law could end up working. Of course, this is hardly surprising, given that they’ve largely organized the party around the guiding idea that Obamacare is nothing but an epic catastrophe that can only be redeemed by eviscerating it entirely, and that the public is with them all the way. That was partly what led Republicans to adopt the disastrous shutdown strategy. I wouldn’t discount the possibility that it could be leading them into another long term miscalculation right now.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.