The Washington Post

The single biggest strategic mistake Republicans made with the shutdown

By virtually any measure, the rollout of the health-care exchanges -- a central element of the Affordable Care Act -- has been a disaster.  Technical glitches abound and a new poll conducted by the Associated Press-GfK shows that just 27 percent of Americans believe the unveiling of the exchanges has gone well.

A man looks over the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare) signup page on the website in New York in this October 2, 2013 photo illustration. REUTERS/Mike Segar

That's front page/top of broadcast sort of news.  And it's all bad for President Obama. Except that the federal government is shut down, a story so big that it has sucked up all the media oxygen that under virtually any other circumstances would be spent on the problems with a centerpiece of Obamacare. And that is Republicans' single biggest strategic misstep of this entire shutdown -- and the one that may haunt them for months to come.

As we have written before, health care is a stone-cold winner -- if polling is accurate -- for Republicans in the midterm elections unless they screw it up, which they are in the process of doing.

First, Republicans -- led by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz -- chose, literally, the one message on Obamacare that isn't popular among the public: linking the defunding of the law to funding the federal government.

In a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted late last month, just one in four (27 percent) respondents said they approved of tying the defunding of Obamacare to keeping the government open. That same poll showed a majority (52 percent) of Americans disapproving of the law.

And now, by making good on the threat to shut down the government unless Obama and Senate Democrats agreed to revise the health-care law, Republicans have effectively obscured for the American public a grand-slam sort of issue for them.

Imagine for a moment that after fighting like hell to repeal/defund/delay Obamacare, congressional Republicans cut a deal to keep the government open on Sept. 30. The next day, the health-insurance exchanges debuted -- to initial (and continuing) bad reviews. Not only would there be wall-to-wall media coverage of the problems but Republicans would be perfectly positioned to say, "I told you so".

The struggles of the exchanges to get off the ground would be Exhibit A to reinforce the Republican argument that the program is simply not ready for prime time and needs to be delayed and/or reexamined. Instead, the problems with the rollout of the health-insurance exchanges are on the back burner. What's on the front one? The divide within the Republican Party over the best way forward on the shutdown and the broad fiscal debate.

Since it's baseball playoff season, we'll put it in those terms: Republicans took a hanging curveball and not only didn't swing at it but closed their eyes when it was thrown. And they will almost certainly look back with regret on that decision.

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

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