For Republicans, the cliffhanger over a government shutdown is a win-win.
If they manage to extract a concession from Senate Democrats in exchange for voting to approve a continuing resolution to fund the government's operations, then they've won. The House Republicans are asking for a repeal of Obamacare's tax on medical devices and a one-year delay of the implementation of the health care law. If they get either one, they'll have achieved something that they wouldn't have achieved had they been as pliant as President Obama wanted.
And — here is the underappreciated point — if the Republicans fold and approve the spending bill without extracting any concessions from Democrats, then they've also won. Because in that case, Americans will actually get a chance to see for themselves what a train-wreck Obamacare is. If the law is really as bad as Republicans say it is, then as a political matter, what could be better for Republicans than voters finding out firsthand?
Polls have consistently shown the public's attitude to Obamacare as skeptical verging on hostile. That's based on opinion shaped in part by Republican descriptions of the law. If the real thing matches the scary scenario painted by Republican critics — or simply fails to live up to the utopia promised by President Obama and the Democrats — the politics of that should be great for the Republicans.
Democratic politicians dined out for years on anecdotal and sometimes even apocryphal health care horror stories — the woman whose coverage was dropped when she got cancer, the family that went bankrupt because of a child's medical bills, the grandfather who had to choose between food and medicine. Once the health care law goes into effect, every problem with American health care — the medical errors, the inscrutable blizzards of bills and explanations of benefits, the wait to get an appointment with a specialist or even a highly regarded non-specialist, the high cost, the odd combination of high technology (MRIs, artificial hips) and low technology (you usually can't email your doctor) — can be laid, as a political matter, directly at the feet of President Obama, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi.
So Republicans hoping for a year's delay in the implementation of the law may want to be careful what they wish for. And Democrats hoping against a delay should be careful what they wish for.
The Republicans trying to prevent the disaster can argue that they are nobly putting their country's economy and the public health above the politics of it. Quietly, some worry that the subsidies for individuals are so generous, and the rewards for interest groups like health insurance companies and drug companies are so attractive, that once people get used to them they will be impossible to ratchet back. Others despair that somehow the weak job growth will be blamed on House Republicans, new technology, or foreign competition instead of the culprit of Obamacare. None of those concerns are entirely unfounded.
Yet consider that when the time rolls around to fix Obamacare's problems in 2016, voters may find themselves with a chance to vote for Hillary Clinton, whose health care expertise stems from her failed effort to impose Hillarycare on the country in her husband's first term. If her opponent is a Republican governor with a record of job growth in his or her state and of more market-oriented practical leadership on health care, the current shutdown standoff could yet emerge as a turning point in the 2016 campaign.