Is the Republican Party committing suicide this week? The final results of the shutdown blame game won't be in until the government is un-shut. Yet at the same time that the party is allowing itself to be branded as an ideologically rigid outfit controlled by political hostage takers, it has been endangering its future by waging a high-profile but Alamo-like stand against Obamacare, just as a main component of the health care program is kicking in—and appears to be popular.
If anything has defined the GOP in its must-destroy-Obama phase, it's the party's virulent opposition to the Affordable Care Act. And with Obama reelected, the economy slowly improving, and deficits slowly decreasing, Republicans have bet almost all the chips they have left on the decimation of Obamacare. With Sen. Ted Cruz wagging the party, the GOPers pushing for the government shutdown—aided and abetted by Rush Limbaugh, the Heritage Foundation, and other influentials of the far right—have focused exclusively on Obamacare. This confrontation over government spending has nothing to do with, well, government spending. The shutdown was merely a way for Cruz-controlled Republicans to vent about Obamacare. So if the Republican party stands for anything today, it is obstructing Obamacare. But here's the rub: What if Obamacare works?
The initial response to yesterday's opening of the state and federal exchanges that are providing affordable insurance plans to Americans who previously could not obtain coverage has Obamacare proponents dancing. Millions of Americans were not scared away by Koch-financed ads (including this rapey spot). Sure, there were glitches and websites crashed. But that's natural, given the overwhelming demand. And the exchanges have weeks to work out the kinks before the December 15 deadline to finish enrolling people for the coming year.
So while the Republicans have succeeded in forcing a shutdown of the government—according to the latest polls, not a popular endeavor—their crusade against Obamacare has harmed their long-term prospects in several ways:
- The Republicans have helped expand the power of the federal government. Because of conservative opposition to the ACA, many states controlled by Republicans declined to set up their own exchanges. This meant that Washington had to do so instead. Consequently, the federal government has increased its reach into the lives of Americans. In dozens of states, Americans seeking insurance will now credit Washington, not their local governor, when they obtain coverage. Assuming the program works in providing insurance to these people, conservatives will suffer a tremendous setback regarding their foundational argument (and raison d'être): Government is the problem, not the solution. Oops. No wonder Cruz yearned to stop Obamacare before it could become proof of a different narrative.
- The Republicans have put their credibility on the line. Death panels. Killing granny. Crashing the economy. For years, conservatives have hurled the most dire predictions. Just as when Ronald Reagan once said that Medicare would wreck the United States: "One of these days we are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it once was like in America when men were free." What happens if Obamacare does provide the deliverables—as the policy wonks say—that millions of Americans want? GOPers will be tagged as liars—or, at least, fear mongering, truth-defying spinners—who cannot be trusted.
- The Republicans are reviving ACORN-like groups. Because many GOP-run states have opted out of Obamacare, community groups, including the remnants of ACORN, an anti-poverty organizing outfit that collapsed a few years ago in the wake of a controversy triggered by a misleading right-wing-made undercover video, are filling the void. They are working in the field to find and sign-up low-income Americans who qualify for coverage under Obamacare. Conservatives cheered the death of ACORN. But they have helped set the stage for its return (a possibility that has some right-wingers pulling out their hair).
- The Republicans have lost California—and maybe Florida, too. The opening reviews for the Obamacare exchanges were perhaps best in California, where the response was awesome. The state prepared well for the start of enrollment, and officials there were heartened by the first day of operation. As Republicans well know, they have long had a California problem. It began in 1994, when Pete Wilson, then the governor, led the GOP off the cliff by adopting a strong anti-immigrant stance. And Latinos are the demographic group with the highest rates for the uninsured. If Obamacare becomes an important benefit for Latinos—and other Californians—the GOP California dilemma will intensify, as will its overall challenge wooing Latino voters nationwide (see Florida and elsewhere).
- And Virginia, as well. The GOP could take a more immediate electoral hit due to the party's fixation with the ACA. Because of the shutdown caused by the GOP's Obamacare obsession, Ken Cuccinelli, the tea-party-fancied Republican candidate for governor in Virginia, will probably have a tougher time catching Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate who currently leads in that race. (The election is next month.) Plenty of federal workers live in Virginia, and the shutdown is not going to endear tea partyish Republicans to many of them.
The conservative/Republican war against Obamacare has led the GOP to a dark place. Many right-wing pundits and Republican leaders have been rooting for Obamacare to fail. That is, they have been cheering against a program that will provide millions of Americans with the sense of security that comes with health insurance. They have issued apocalyptic Ayn Randian predictions about Obamacare ruining the health care system, the economy, and the soul of the United States. They have staked much on this campaign (including a presidential campaign that failed). If the exchanges do work in providing the uninsured coverage—and Obamacare has already helped millions of people by ending for many the preexisting condition dodge, providing more financial assistance to seniors for prescription medicines, and allowing young adults to remain on their parents' plans longer—the conservatives are screwed.
Cruz was right: Conservatives had to stop Obamacare before it had the chance to succeed—though he put it in slightly different terms, noting he feared that Americans would become addicted to Obamacare "sugar." Prior to this point, Republicans could say whatever they wanted, for extreme rhetoric about what might happen could not be disproved—and such demagoguery played on existing and justified concerns about the unknown. Yet once there are facts—is Obamacare working or not?—the debate will shift. Well, maybe not for the Republicans, but it will for millions of Americans who will evaluate the new reality and decide for themselves whether this is the end of America or the start of a better nation.