Why Obamacare Is Making Republicans Look Wise Beyond Their Years

During the public debate over health care in 2009 and 2010, no matter how tightly you may have shut your door, there was one piece of information it was impossible to avoid: the president’s promise that if you liked your doctor and your health care plan you would be able to keep it. So it was a surprise to many people to get a letter like the one Independence Blue Cross sent its customers weeks ago. It said that as a result of the Affordable Care Act, “your current plan will be discontinued effective January 1, 2014, and you will need to select a new plan by the end of December to avoid any interruption in coverage.” 

That wasn’t what the president promised. But wait, the president can explain. It’s not what we think. People won’t have the same insurance—they will have better insurance, administration officials assure. That’s not the way some of the people receiving these letters see it. The president’s original promise was so ironclad and repeated so often that any explanation now sounds like dissembling. 

When healthcare.gov launched with the fanfare and success of a North Korean missile, the president insisted that Obamacare was more than a website. The website might be a mess, but the underlying product was sound. Now, it’s Republicans who are using this exact phrase. Like the president, GOP leaders want people to focus on the larger law. You can fix a website, they say, but you can’t improve the law.

What started as a website debacle is growing into a relitigation of the underlying operation. The Affordable Care Act passed with cracks and inconsistencies that are now re-emerging in the context of the website’s bad launch. In some cases that simply gives Republicans new lines of attack. In others, like this argument over keeping your old health care, the failure of the site is weakening the administration’s ability to engage in those old debates. 

The matter at issue here only affects the 5 percent of the population that buys health care in the individual market, compared to the 80 percent who get health care through their companies. The president’s press secretary, Jay Carney pointed this out several times in his daily briefing Tuesday to put the controversy in perspective. “You would think in some of the coverage over the last several days we were talking about 75 percent,” he said. Fair enough, but the president’s claim about keeping coverage was always about more than a sliver of people signing up for Obamacare which is why it has the ability to resonate beyond the audience directly affected by it.

Let’s go back in time. During the debate over the law, the president had a difficult balancing act. He had to argue that the status quo in health care was a disaster while at the same time not threatening the status quo for those people who were happy with their health care or who feared it would get worse under his changes. A CBS poll at the time showed that people were quite afraid that whatever the president did, it would hurt their plans. Sixty-nine percent worried that the ACA would affect the quality of their care. Almost three-quarters thought it would limit their access. There was a lot of pressure on the president to send the message that nothing would change.

In the summer of 2009, the president began to tailor his message to assuage these very people. If you liked what you had, it wasn’t going to change. That was a broad and simplified claim and the press called him on it. The president could never make that promise. He didn’t have the power to keep insurance companies from changing their policies in response to the law. Nevertheless, the president continued to make the claim in the desperate attempt to sell his unpopular plan.

This was a time bomb embedded in the legislation. It might have been mitigated if the website had worked. If it had been humming as administration officials so fervently hoped, there would be no broader context for debates about whether the president is living up to his promises. And in this specific instance, the flourishing of the site might have offered loads of examples of people in that individual market whose plans had only changed for the better. Of course, that’s not what happened.

The president’s message about his signature law has always been: It gets better, I promise. That was always an uphill battle. The benefits of the law were strung out over time, making it harder for people to recognize a payoff. “Trust me” claims clash with people’s mistrust of politicians and government programs. 

When the website doesn’t work and the promises of 2009 and 2010 are revised, questions of credibility infect everything the administration says. This can lead to a death spiral as administration officials make bold assertions to distract from the current challenges. White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett tweeted Monday night: “FACT: Nothing in #Obamacare forces people out of their health plans. No change is required unless insurance companies change existing plans.” Of course the insurance companies wouldn’t have had to change plans if it hadn’t been for Obamacare. This is spinning—which is to be expected from a president’s defender—but its legalistic dissembling that seems particularly weak in light of the president’s initial promises. (It isn’t the only time the administration has claimed a FACT recently about health care that isn’t one).

For congressional Republicans, these credibility challenges help obscure their recent flirtation with utter collapse. It’s not just that Republicans benefit when the president’s signature legislation falters. This debate over his initial claim lends credibility to their longstanding opposition to the law. House Speaker John Boehner’s office quickly provided reporters with a quotation from the GOP weekly radio address from September 2009, delivered by Rep. Tom Price: “On the stump, the president regularly tells Americans that ‘if you like your plan, you can keep your plan.’ But if you read the bill, that just isn’t so. For starters, within five years, every health care plan will have to meet a new federal definition for coverage—one that your current plan might not match, even if you like it.” A key critique of the Republican Party’s recent attempt to defund Obamacare was that it was a strategy born of limited vision. They couldn’t see that it was doomed to fail spectacularly. Four years ago, with the Affordable Care Act, they saw this moment coming.


How the Healthcare.gov Failure Will Morph Into Obamacaregate

On Thursday, when contractors who helped build healthcare.gov come back to Congress, you will hear a lot more about CGI Federal. The Canadian-owned company built the website, and in testimony from Sept. 10, it told the skeptical House Energy and Commerce Committee that things were going just great.

Well. In announcing this new hearing, Republicans complained that “[f]or months, administration officials and contractors alike assured committee members that implementation was ‘on track‘ for the October 1 rollout, but the first three weeks of open enrollment have been defined by significant systems failures.” There’s a contradiction here, and there’s a party remaining silent. What do HHS staffers think of the mess? How much did they know before Oct. 1?

If the investigations into Fast and Furious and the IRS scandal tell us anything, the next phase of GOP sleuthing into Obamacare will probably be subpoenas and other requests that produce awkward communication (emails, mostly) from HHS and contractors. There will be lower-level bureaucrats who get caught out for saying the wrong thing, or encouraging others not to say the wrong thing. It’s incredible that HHS et al. built this system for years with nary a leak about possible glitches in the system. 


Shutdown Polling Terrible for GOP, as Party Pivots to Obamacare

Those unloved men and women who make up the Republican “establishment” warned against shutting down the government or using the continuing resolution to defund Obamacare. It wasn’t that they were falling madly in love with the socialist takeover of our health care; it was because they expected the rollout of healthcare.gov to turn into a goat rodeo, and they feared a shutdown would distract from this.

They were right. Among the disaster points for Republicans in the latest tranche of the ABC/WaPo poll:

– By a 24-point margin (53–29), voters blame Republicans, not the president, for the shutdown. That’s about even with the numbers vis-à-vis Bill Clinton and Republicans after the last shutdown, although at least the Gingrich-Dole regime had some idea of what policy changes it wanted to win next.

– By an 11-point margin (49–38), voters say they’d prefer to vote for a Democratic candidate for Congress in 2014. Generally speaking, the Democrats need to win the popular vote for the House by 6–8 points if they want to win control. 

– A majority of people, 54 percent, say they agree with Obama and the debt limit should “not be used as a tool in budget negotiations.”

All bad news, but hey, at least the squishes are being proved right. Also in theWashington Post today:

– An editorial tut-tutting the rollout of healthcare.gov, advising that “the administration is not going to restore confidence through secrecy and damage control.”

– A Dana Milbank column mocking the president’s press appearance about same.

– A plaintive item by Greg Sargent arguing that Americans still want to give Obamacare a chance.

Here we go—it’s the debate Republicans should have been having two weeks ago, as they argued that these glitches made the one-year delay of the individual mandate not just popular but necessary.

The “Tea-Tards” Guy and the Failure of Fake Shutdown Outrage

For a few minutes on Tuesday, everybody hated David Roper. The U.S. Army veteran showed up at an Organizing for America rally against the shutdown, an event that wasn’t destined to get a ton of coverage. He unveiled a sign, white type on red, that screamed, “THANKS TEA-TARDS.”

Immediately, he was condemned by the House Disabilities caucus, with Nebraska Rep. Lee Terry insisting that “President Obama needs to call out his supporters at the DNC and OFA for condoning this insensitive and hurtful message during their protest.” Roper called it a non-story.

“I made the sign as a joke,” he wrote in an email. “As I have said (and has been documented on the internet etc) my ‘real’ sign was the one I was holding at the WWII Memorial this morning, which said, ‘VETERANS AGAINST INSANI-TEA.’ The second sign was supposed to be a humorous play on the words ‘Tea Party’ and ‘retards’ and I took it out for a few minutes on the Capitol steps before going home.”

He explained himself with these citations: “It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’ As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more… than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so fucking what?” – Stephen Fry “Do you want me to apologize after every joke? If it doesn’t offend somebody it’s probably not a joke. It’s probably an observation that’s not funny.” – Jeff Ross

Having once indulged in a similar misuse of portmaneau-fu (I ironically used the term “Paultards” to refer to how Fox News covered Ron Paul’s movement), I saw where Roper was coming from. In my mind, he became the last icon of the shutdown’s many, many bouts of false outrage. This ranged from the Republican sputter-and-point at an anonymous quote in the Wall Street Journal to the appearance of a man holding a Confederate flag at Sunday’s rally outside the White House. Roper’s position: Everybody, chill out about these pointless distractions.

“I wasn’t at the White House on Sunday so I don’t know what message [flag guy] was trying to send, but he’s got a right to hold whatever flag he wants. Both of our demonstrations were pretty innocuous yet have been blown out of proportion, so we’ve got that in common I guess.”

But it was all blown out of proportion. That Sunday rally began as a protest against the closure of the World War II Memorial, something that prevented exactly zero veterans from seeing the thing. Republicans, who expected to “win” the shutdown as voters outside D.C. learned that it wasn’t so bad, ended up playing an inside game and hyping day-to-day outrages, day-to-day “piecemeal” bills, to win back the storyline. It didn’t work for Mitt Romney. Why did they think it would work for them?

Let’s Laugh at the People Who Told Obama to Give in to Republicans

I’m no fan of “winners and losers” breakdowns of complicated fights, because I think they’re simplistic, and I hate getting heavy Internet traffic for my articles. But it would be irresponsible to move on from Shutdown 2013 without remembering how badly the GOP underestimated Barack Obama. The White House said all year that the president would refuse to negotiate on the debt limit. The president himself said this whenever asked. Republicans didn’t buy it.

“Oh, nobody believes that,” said Rep. Paul Ryan in a Sept. 28 interview with National Review. “Nobody believes that. He himself negotiated Bowles Simpson on the debt limit with Democrats. That was Kent Conrad’s requirement. He himself negotiated the Budget Control Act with the debt limit. Graham Rudman [sic]. Bush Andrews Airforce Base. Clinton Gore ‘97. All of those major budget agreements were debt limit agreements. I see this time as no different and I believe he does too. I think most people believe he’s just posturing for now.”

He was not posturing. Republicans failed to appreciate the president’s strengthened position vis-à-vis 2011, when he had lost the House and needed to win re-election. They had a theory that the world had changed since 1995, and the “optics” of a shutdown were changeable. Republicans didn’t realize that Obama was doing his best impression of Rorschach after he gets jailed in Watchmen. He wasn’t locked in with them. Theywere locked in with him.*

Let us also raise our glasses the pundits who completely misread the situation.

– Ron Fournier, Oct. 7: “Why Obama Must Talk to the GOP.”There is the matter of optics. Voters want to believe that their leaders are open-minded, a trait they particularly expect in a president who promised to change the culture of Washington. Obama simply undermines his credibility by stiff-arming the GOP. Their obstinacy is no excuse for his. During the last protracted government shutdown, President Clinton talked almost every day with GOP rivals Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole.”

– Piers Morgan, Oct. 8. “There comes a point, if you’re the President of the United States and it’s your government that shuts down, you’ve got to be the big guy. You want to get in the room and do business.”

– Michael Kinsley, Oct. 10: “Obama Should Just Give in to the Republicans,” an instant classic that ofered the president the cave-in speech he needed to give. “I have sent a letter to Speaker Bohner, saying that I will agree to a year’s postponement of the Affordable Care Act, if he will agree to a rise in the debt limit that is at least big enough to spare us another episode like this for a year. I can’t pretend that this is not a defeat for common sense, good government, and democracy. And if people wish to see it as a defeat for me, so be it. I have more important things to worry about.”

Why were they so wrong? I don’t think they were cynical enough. It was easy for the White House to keep the onus on the party that made demands in order to fund the government, and when the story turned last week, the one-way talks that brought members of Congress to the White House fixed the “optics” problem. There remains no good way for a party in control of Congress to make the president look like an aggressor in a shutdown. I am sure, in the long run, this will be blamed on liberal media bias.

*In this analogy, Ted Cruz is the guy that Rorshach splatters with hot fat. Cruz’s emergence as a foil was a great benefit to Obama. Republicans like John Boehner, and as poorly as the speaker polls, he comes off as a regular guy. None of this is true with Cruz, the champion debater who knows exactly how smart he is.


Here Are the Republicans Who Voted to Stop the Shutdown and Will Be Primaried Tomorrow

The roll calls for last night’s shutdown-ending compromise offer us the umpteenth look at the GOP’s at-risk members, their hard-liners, and their break-glass-in-case-of-emergency Boehner allies. I’ve been critical of the various listicle attempts to portray the shutdown as the fault of some small, nebulous band of Bolsheviks. Those “30 Republicans caused the shutdown” theories don’t appreciate how conservative the median Republican is now.

So: 144 House Republicans, or 62 percent of the conference, voted against the final deal that gave Republicans nothing but income verification for Obamacare recipients. Eighteen Republican senators, 39 percent of their caucus, voted against the deal — appointed New Jersey Sen. Jeff Chiesa voted “aye” as he literally headed out the door, and Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe was absent, recuperating from surgery.

The Senate “no” votes were basically divvied between the vocal hard-liners like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and the silent partners like Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson — the guys who did not join in the fight. 

– The blue-staters split at random. New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Maine Sen. Susane Collins, both of whom having criticized the “defund” strategy, were ayes. Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley and Nevada Sen. Dean Heller voted no.

– The survivors of Tea Party primary challenges voted aye. After the vote, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski passed by Arizona Sen. John McCain, who was conducting an interview with NPR in a scrum of reporters.

“Next time, be more constructive, huh?” heckled Murkowski, as a joke. McCain and the reporters cracked up. “Thank you, good leadership,” said Murkowski.

In 2010, Murkowski survived a narrow primary loss and won re-election as a write-in candidate. Sarah Palin has intermittently threatened to run against her. McCain fended off a primary challenge, too, as did Indiana Sen. Dan Coats (he survived a crowded primary with two more right-wing candidates), Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, and Ayotte. They were joined by a few senators who faced challenges in 2014, like Lindsey Graham and Lamar Alexander. This is the downside of the conservative revolt — if the target stops fearing you, he goes from ignoring you to not taking you seriously. When I asked Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker what he made of the Club for Growth scoring his “aye” vote against him, he smiled and replied: “I confess, I didn’t see that.”

The House votes were more complicated.

– Most Senate candidates voted no. Mostly. Arkansas Rep. Tom Cotton and West Virginia Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, who are trying to take over seats now held by Democrats, voted for the deal. But Louisiana Rep. Bill Cassidy and all of the Georgia Republicans running for Senate (Broun, Gingrey, Kingston) voted no, as did Montana Rep. Steve Daines, who might run. Cotton and Capito have scared off primary challengers. Those still worried about primaries went with the Club for Growth’s position.

 Republicans in blue seats voted aye. 16 Republicans now hold districts that voted for Barack Obama in 2012. Fourteen of them voted for the deal; retiring Florida Rep. Bill Young did not vote. The exception: California Rep. Jeff Denham. This might all be obvious, but I want/need to poke the “gerrymandering doesn’t matter” crowd as often as I can.