The Republican Party and the larger conservative movement have been at odds of late over tactics, tone and even specific policy objectives (e.g. immigration reform). But the GOP, despite itself, has caught a break with the Obamacare meltdown. As Ron Fournier put it, “[T]he website is critical to the law’s purpose: helping millions of Americans bargain for better health care. Dismissing the extent of the problem and reminding voters that Republicans fought the law — which is essentially all Obama did in his Rose Garden remarks — is a deflection, which shouldn’t be confused with implementation or governing.”
If Republicans are smart they will use this moment to do a number of things:
1. Shift tactics. Although he was one of the early proponents of the defund Obamacare effort, Sen. Marco Rubio is (wisely) changing his tune. In a written statement on Monday he argued, “The legislation, which will be introduced when the U.S. Senate reconvenes next week, would delay the individual mandate until six months after the GAO certifies the websites and all other sign-up options (phone, mail, fax) are fully functional. Thereafter, it exempts people from paying the mandate fines if they can prove that they tried to sign up but could not because of technical or customer service issues.” They can bemoan the failure to make this the party’s position a few weeks ago, but certainly it is one the entire party can rally around now.
2. Offer something. Neither the GOP leadership or its intraparty critics have come up with an alternative to Obamacare. Now, since Obamacare is plainly not meeting its pie-in-the-sky promises, is the perfect time to offer limited, concrete items as an alternative. There is no need to offer a comprehensive scheme since Obama’s comprehensive scheme isn’t comprehensive or even functioning. If GOP really intends to lead and the shutdown proponents are serious about governing, they should be able to unify around a single, short alternative.
3. Go broader. Obamacare is one element of a larger, disastrous trend from the point of view of conservatives. The liberal welfare state is too large, too intrusive and too expensive to operate well and to allow the private economy to flourish. This is an opportunity for think tankers, activists and candidates to make the case that this is illustrative, not the entire problem, with the expanded federal government President Obama champions. It isn’t obvious to the average voter why an abstraction like “limited government” should concern them. But here it is — a monstrous piece of legislation that can’t operate and has brought on a slew of unintended consequences (e.g. rise of part-time work, skyrocketing premium costs).
4. Reunify. The shutdown squad and the GOP leadership all want to get rid of Obamacare and all believe that if the economy and civil society are to flourish, regulations, spending, debt and taxes should be modest. In the shutdown storm, Republicans assumed the role of the radical, anti-government forces. This is a time to pivot, readjust rhetoric and make the case that the government is doing too much and doing it poorly. On that, virtually all Republicans can agree.
5. Relate to lower- and middle-class Americans. Republican leaders and their hardline critics have failed to connect their aspirations and their philosophy to the lives of ordinary Americans. Obamacare is a conversation opener. Republicans can empathize with the frustration of Americans, not only about Obamacare but also about many aspects of government overreach and the country’s direction. The GOP is against layers of regulations not because (as the president claims) it doesn’t care about the health and well-being of fellow citizens. It opposes them because they hurt small business, tie up expansion and innovation that could benefit all Americans and thereby depress hiring. It is time for both sides of the GOP intraparty battle to begin to talk to the voters (not at them and not only to other Republicans) in terms that they understand and experience in their daily lives.
The lesson of the shutdown is not that we should learn to live with Obamacare. It is that unwinnable battles destroy party unity, alienate the voters from Republicans and give the impression the GOP is out to lunch (that is, unconcerned about the voters’ real lives). It may be easier to recover from the shutdown’s self-inflicted wounds if the GOP can pivot quickly to attainable goals.