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How Republicans blew a massive political opportunity on Obamacare

A contentious House hearing on Obamacare. still not working -- and with no clear fix date in sight. Democrats in swing states beginning to raise concerns. Former White House officials calling for heads to roll.

The US Capitol building is seen reflected in the Capitol Reflection Pool after sunset in Washington DC, USA, 28 September 2013. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

Republicans with an eye on the 2014 midterms could hardly have written a better political script. After spending much of the last year -- in truth, much of the last three years -- arguing that Obamacare is a bad law that isn't ready for prime time, the last month has been Exhibit A to reinforce that point.  Add to that the fact that the second midterm election of a president almost always sees the party out of (presidential) power gain seats in the House and Senate -- six-year  itch and all that -- and Republicans should be sitting pretty.

Should be, but aren't. Why? Because of the massive political hit they took during the 16-day government shutdown, a political cataclysm that, at least in the near term, has badly damaged the party's brand and made it more difficult for them to capitalize on what should be a golden opportunity for them. Check out this chart, which shows the rapid increase in disapproval for Republicans' handling of the budget negotiations, as charted by Washington Post-ABC News polling, and encapsulates the depth of the self-inflicted wound.

Chart (10)

Imagine if the last month had been as dominated as the last week has been by coverage of how the health-care Web site doesn't work. How the Obama administration and, in particular, the Department of Health and Human Services, do not have all -- or even many -- of the answers. How some Senate and House Democrats up in swing states are already getting skittish.

You can be damn sure the trendline in the chart above wouldn't look like it does. Instead of dashing ahead of Democrats in the political race (bad metaphor alert!), Republicans' best hope at the moment is to use the current problems surrounding the rollout of Obamacare to undo some of the damage the party did to itself during the shutdown. What the party did with the shutdown is dig a big hole and then jump into it. Now, they have to scratch and crawl their way out. You have to wonder what the political landscape might look like if they didn't dig the hole at all.

Republicans argue that the problems with Obamacare -- and the Web site -- are just beginning, and they may be right. The fact that the Obama administration isn't willing to say publicly when the problems will be resolved means they, well, don't know the answer. If the problems with extend well into next year and come to color the broader law with negative perceptions, the blown opportunity by Republicans over the last month may well be forgotten.

But, blown opportunities in politics -- like errors in the World Series -- almost always come back to bite you.  And this was a major one by Republicans.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.



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Chris Cillizza · October 24, 2013

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