Health care mess helps GOP in 2014 – but then what?

Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON — The effects of the holiday season linger. Like the post-haunting Scrooge, I am as light as a feather, as happy as an angel, as merry as a schoolboy, determined to keep Christmas well. And still, when forced to consider it: 2013 was a dismal, terrible, cringe-inducing year in American politics. God help us, everyone.

It was a year in which the left, in implementing Obamacare, showed its worst face: overconfident, coercive, economically irrational and incompetent. The whole enterprise of technocratic planning will henceforth be shadowed by three numbers: three, 500 million and six. Three years to prepare the launch of About half a billion dollars spent on contractors. And six people (according to an internal memo) signed up the first day.

It was also a year in which the right, in the government shutdown, showed its worst face: angry, fractious, ideological and uninterested in governing. “They pushed us into this fight to defund Obamacare and to shut down the government,” House Speaker John Boehner later complained. “Most of you know, my members know, that wasn’t exactly the strategy that I had in mind.”

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When was the last time a congressional leader publicly admitted to being railroaded by an irrational political faction?

In both of these cases – the Obamacare launch and conservative attempts to defund the program – there were clear signs of trouble ahead. The software and the strategy were obviously flawed – like ice too thin to take the required weight. But politics and ideology compelled smart people to strap on skates and attempt their doomed salchows.

This led to an extraordinary spectacle in the fall. The central appeals of two great political parties were discredited at the same time: Health care politics as a new governing majority. Anti-government populism as the wave of the future. Neither worked out as planned.

So what emerges from these ideological ruins? Perhaps a centrist governing coup, in which the Obama administration and congressional leaders plot immigration reform, measures to encourage economic mobility and major health care reform revisions? Not likely. While 2013 did end with a budget deal, it was the result of political exhaustion, not ideological innovation.

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The politics of 2014, leading up to the midterm elections, will probably be dominated by two holdover trends from 2013.

First, the travails of implementing Obamacare will continue, with unexpectedly high premium and deductible costs, restricted doctor networks and small business plan cancellations that affect millions. The conditions of exchange systems in various states will vary radically – some relatively healthy, others with catastrophically underpopulated and risky insurance pools. Many Americans, of course, will benefit from provisions of the Affordable Care Act. But the disastrous launch of Obamacare has created a narrative of failure, leading to the natural selection of press stories consistent with that assumption.

The central problem of Obamacare will not yield to technical or rhetorical solutions. President Obama sold it to Americans as a plan with no losers. But it is a redistribution program, creating both winners and losers. And many of the losers in Obamacare consider themselves middle class. This realization may eventually lead a number of elected Democrats to favor serious revisions.

The second trend is an outgrowth of the first. The problems of Obamacare are likely (and perversely) to delay any serious ideological repositioning of the Republican Party. The argument will be: “Why take any risk of dividing the GOP with, say, an immigration reform push, or a health reform alternative, when Democrats are in the process of self-destructing?”

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Republicans have a serious prospect of retaining control of the House and regaining control of the Senate in November – assuming that tea party challenges don’t knock off some of their stronger Senate candidates. The generic congressional ballot is increasingly favorable to Republicans. It is the probability of losing elections that forces parties to creatively alter their appeal. The failures of Obamacare, in short, reinforce Republican ideological timidity, at least at the congressional level.

The central problem for the GOP is a split political personality. For congressional Republicans, ideological timidity is a reasonable, short-term electoral strategy. For Republicans concerned about retaking the presidency in 2016, it is wholly insufficient. There is an urgent need to reposition the party with minorities, women and the young. Pointing and laughing at the failures of Obamacare will not be a sufficient governing vision.

This is, perhaps, the best a Republican can hope for in 2014: to benefit from the failures of Obamacare, while incubating the ideas that move the GOP beyond reflexive negativity.

Michael Gerson’s column is distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.