In a political universe a long time ago — ok, only October 2013 — Democrats dreamt of taking the House back. Right now that seems as likely as a “grand bargain” authored by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report explains that with “the 2014 election back to looking more like a referendum on President Obama than House Republicans, we have updated our outlook to a GOP gain of zero to ten House seats.”

WASHINGTON, DC-January 18: (L-R) Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), James Clyburn (D-SC) during the hearing... Before the House brings up the debate concerning repeal of the Health Care Bill, the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee held a hearing, led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), on the Republican legislation to Òrepeal patientsÕ rightsÓ within the health care bill, on Capitol Hill January 18, 2011. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post) Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), left, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) . (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

The shutdown has now been subsumed by the Obamacare rollout mess:

[F]or Democrats to have really built on their October progress, they would have needed 1) the promise of more Republican intransigence on continuing resolutions and debt ceilings, 2) more Republican retirements from marginal or semi-marginal districts, and 3) a raft of five to ten more “grade A” candidates in GOP-held districts. In the aftermath of the ACA’s launch, none of the three have materialized.

He puts the “best case” for Democrats as adding 12 seats and the “worst case” as losing 21 seats. So even if everything goes their way, the Democrats remain in the minority. Cook himself calls the turnaround in political fortunes “unprecedented”:

[I]n mid-October, the focus shifted from the government-shutdown fiasco to a different debacle, this time a Democratic disaster: the botched launch of the Obamacare website and subsequent implementation problems of the health care law, including termination notices going out to many people who had insurance coverage. The Democratic numbers from the generic-ballot test dropped from 45 percent to 37 percent, and Republicans moved up to 40 percent. This 10-point net shift from a Democratic advantage of 7 points to a GOP edge of 3 points in just over a month is breathtaking, perhaps an unprecedented swing in such a short period.

There are several conclusions to be drawn from this. First, the flip from GOP disaster to Democratic disaster is precisely why it was so critical for Republicans to get the budget monkey off their backs. That they were able to do so with no tax increases, more defense spending and the sequester in essentially the same form suggests Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) got the best of the deal. As Megan McArdle puts it, “[T]actically, I think this is a clear win for the Republican Party. The last thing [Republicans] need right now is to take the focus off the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and revive Obama’s flagging poll numbers with an ill-timed budget battle. Their best shot at a budget they really like is, after all, to retake the Senate in 2014.”

Second, Republicans may be tempted now to be overly cautious, do nothing and sit tight until November 2014. This would be a mistake and lost opportunity. With the far right in retreat and Democrats in panic over Obamacare, House leadership could well accomplish some agenda items — immigration reform, an energy bill or even student aid transparency and reform. Not only would this potentially help them get to that +21 number, but it would give them a mandate and direction after the election to press forward.

Third, another way Republicans can set the stage for 2014 and 2016 without getting off the topic of Obamacare is to introduce a very simple Obamacare alternative, the short-and-sweet antidote to Obamacare woes. This will also remind voters how bad Obamacare is, give them additional reason to throw out the Senate Democratic majority and reassure voters the GOP is ready to govern. It would be wise, for now, to match up GOP proposals to the major problems with Obamacare. Obamacare has narrowed the choice of insurance plans, restricted doctors accessible through those plans and taken away the option to buy a catastrophic plan if that suits your needs. Republicans should do the opposite. The GOP plan bill should let people buy whatever insurance at whatever price they please, increase choices by allowing interstate sales and help states set up high-risk pools for people with preexisting conditions. If Republicans fear getting too far into the weeds now, they can come up with a short list of these items to immediately replace Obamacare and then a more general framework for the type of health-care reform they are willing to negotiate with the president.

In short, Republicans are ending the year on a very strong note. However, as in sports, if you sit on your lead it’s likely to disappear.