Conventional wisdom suggests that the Republican Party’s decision to ‘shut down’ the US government for sixteen days in October was a catastrophic political blunder. Key proponents of the shutdown, like Texas Senator Ted Cruz, as well as conservative and libertarian organisations such as Heritage Action and FreedomWorks, were roundly condemned for their actions.
The New York Times labelled Cruz ‘crazy’, Business Insider said he was ‘living on another planet’ and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid predicted Cruz would destroy the Republican Party. Even some conservatives chimed in.
How times change. In the weeks since the US government reopened, politics in America has been turned on its head.
First, a recap. Let’s remember exactly why Republicans like Cruz and others associated with the Tea Party picked a fight that ultimately caused the US government to shutdown.
On 27 September the House of Representatives, controlled by Republicans, passed a bill to fund all the activities of the US government except one. The exception was the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature health law, more commonly known as ‘Obamacare’.
Republicans are only in a position to shutdown the US government because of Obamacare. Democrats used the narrow window of opportunity in 2009 and 2010—when they controlled the White House, Senate and House of Representatives —to ram through the law. It was the popular backlash to Obama’s health plan that lead to the Republican resurgence at the November 2010 congressional elections, handing them a comfortable majority in the House.
At the time Republicans vowed to do everything they could to stop the law. With some aspects of the law approaching implementation, and the new US financial year approaching on 1 October, it was not surprising that Republicans chose to take a stand.
But despite commentators predicting political disaster for Republicans, it has failed to materialise. And the much-derided Tea Party, and their decision to make a strong stand against Obamacare, are starting to look much more politically savvy than they once did.
Following the resumption of normal government services, some aspects of Obamacare began to rollout. Central to Obamacare is the individual mandate—the requirement for every American, with few exemptions, to purchase health insurance. The health care exchanges, through which Americans are now required to buy insurance, opened. Their launch was nothing short of an embarrassing shambles. Healthcare.gov, the US$630 million federal government website where residents of 36 states must sign up for insurance, was opened amid fanfare on 1 October. But the site was virtually inaccessible, plagued with bugs and littered with errors. Just six people signed up for health care plans on its first day. Even the Obama administration described the process as ‘miserable’ and hopes to have the site fixed by the end of November. Consumers are supposed to be enrolled by 15 December.
Massive technical difficulties are hardly the worst of the problems faced, either. During the debate about the healthcare law, President Obama said on at least 37 separate occasions ‘if you like your plan, you can keep it’, reassuring Americans who already had health insurance that they would not be forced to change by the law. In just the first six weeks of the scheme, 4.8 million Americans received letters advising them their insurance was not compliant with Obamacare and would be cancelled. Experts predict this number will rise much higher— potentially into the tens of millions.
Defenders of the administration have fallen over themselves explain away Obama’s promise. One memorably called it ‘narrowly untrue.’ But even PolitiFact awarded the president a ‘pants on fire’ rating for dishonesty over the claim.
It’s no surprise then that Obama’s personal approval ratings have tanked. An average of polls shows that 41 per cent of Americans approve of the job he is doing, compared to 53 per cent who disapprove—among the worst figures of his presidency. And unlike most major legislative reforms, Obamacare remains as unpopular after it was passed as it was before—with 52 per cent of Americans opposing the law, and just 42 per cent in favour.
Now the White House is calling for Republicans to help fix the law. Democrats are breaking ranks and calling for wider exemptions or even for Obamacare to be delayed. That’s of course what the media crucified Republicans for just a few weeks ago.
A year is a long time in politics. But would you rather be headed in to the November 2014 congressional elections having fought tough and nail to stop a disastrous and unpopular law, or having staunchly defended it? Maybe those Tea Party Republicans aren’t so crazy after all.