Assessing the Political Repercussions of the Obamacare Rollout

President Obama has been taking serious heat for the botched rollout of Obamacare.  His approval rating has dropped to a new low of 39% amidst ongoing glitches with Healthcare.gov and the revelation that all Americans will not, in fact, be able to keep their current health insurance under Obamacare.  It appears that 10 million people have received or will receive cancellation notices for their current policies which do not fulfill the full “grandfather” clause of the new health law.  The subsequent and ongoing negative reactions to these issues prompted yesterday’s announcement that insurers could keep enrollees on their current plans through 2014 without any financial or legal consequences.

Whether you support or disagree with the Affordable Care Act, it behooves our country to hope for an immediate resolution to the issues plaguing Obamacare’s rollout.  Collective uncertainty about the status of individual health coverage will only amplify anxiety and confusion about the law as time goes on, which will make its implementation (or, for the Republicans out there, its theoretical repeal) all the more time-consuming and costly.  Even if you don’t think the law produces desirable outcomes, increasing uncertainty in the interim is not a desirable status quo.

Of course, many Republicans don’t feel this way.  Flip on a conservative television program or visit a conservative site and you’ll find a bevy of gleeful talking heads and columnists arguing that they were right all along.  Obamacare was a disaster from its inception, they say, but the President and Congress wouldn’t heed even the most simple of Republican requests to delay its implementation for a year.  And now look what’s happened!

This is, to my mind, the nightmare outcome from the budget battle-debt ceiling brouhaha that Matt and I covered last month.  Congressional Republicans went all in on the idea that Obamacare was so costly, inefficient, and harmful to the American people that it needed to be repealed (or, at the very least, delayed) at all costs.  We condemned this all-in mindset as reckless and needlessly dangerous for the health and credit of the United States and its people, and we still believe the Tea Party-led shutdown was a deeply irresponsible exercise in “governance.”

Now, however, those same Tea Partiers and Republicans who supported a repeal-Obamacare-or-bust mentality in budget negotiations have actual evidence to support their rationale.  GOP favorability ratings plummeted in the wake of the shutdown, but now Republican Senators and Congressmen have a message that actually might convince their constituents back home to vote for them: “We feared this kind of inefficient rollout would happen, which is why we explicitly demanded that the law’s implementation be delayed for a year.  Democrats wouldn’t compromise at all with us and forced us to shut down the government.  And now look what’s happened- we were right.  The law needs to be delayed.  We were the solution, not the problem.”

Bear in mind that I don’t buy this line of argumentation, but I think it could be quite convincing to independents and any voters whose health insurance was identified for cancellation under the new Obamacare standards.  Early information indicates that voters are indeed angry about the coverage gaffe in particular and Democratic Senators up for reelection in 2014 are furious at President Obama for the potential risk to their seats.  Ezra Klein has a good rundown of this situation in November 14’s Wonkbook.  Money quote from Joshua Green:  

Clearly, the failed rollout of the president’s health-care plan is causing the public to lose faith in him. But let’s remember that congressional Republicans forced the government to shut down, and that it was still shut less than a month ago. Yet today, Americans have more confidence in Republicans’ ability to govern than they do in Obama’s. This is plainly a lesser-of-two-evils situation. But it’s pretty remarkable nonetheless: Republicans haven’t just survived the shutdown, they’ve prospered—at least relative to Obama.

I have no particular affinity for the Democrats whose seats will be contested in 2014, but from a political standpoint, it is maddening that the irresponsible behavior of the Tea Party might prove to be a rhetorical asset for their upcoming electoral prospects.  There is little doubt that Tea Partiers are going to make the case that their shutdown / debt ceiling brokerage initiatives were justified.  The evidence they can provide to voters is increasingly damning if not effectively addressed immediately by the Obama administration: ongoing Healthcare.gov problems that probably won’t be fixed by December, anemic enrollment thus far, and the fact that 10 million Americans are losing their insurance despite Obama’s constant promises to the contrary.  It would be sickening to see the recklessness of Cruz and his scorched-earth colleagues rewarded with substantial 2014 gains because the President and HHS dropped the ball so spectacularly.

The final cap on the shutdown fiasco, and the first step to decreasing the Congressional influence of uncompromising absolutists in the Tea Party, would have been a successful Obamacare launch that proved to the country it was popular and relatively efficient.  At that point, one hopes that a new crop of Republicans who accepted the reality of its implementation would work with Democrats to fine-tune the law and make it as cost-effective and fair as possible (or would have at least provided a comprehensive replacement plan if they insisted it was still unworkable).  Instead, we have the absolute worst-case political scenario brewing if Healthcare.gov isn’t fixed immediately.  The same Tea Partiers who shut down the government actually have more leverage than before to argue why the law is unworkable and potentially detrimental to the country.  To see these same Tea Partiers reelected with a mandate to continue their zero-sum fight would lead to a disheartening political mess for the foreseeable future. 

President Obama needed to ace his signature achievement’s implementation, not just for the benefit of the millions who stand to gain coverage from it, but for the immediate prospects of more moderate and practical governance.  The former will likely be attainable in the near future, but I fear the latter might have been lost for the near term.