It's almost hard to remember now, but the shutdown showdown that has gripped Congress for the last two weeks was supposed to be about Obamacare. Over the summer, Republicans, led by Sen. Ted Cruz, united behind a plan to demand that health law be defunded in the continuing resolution needed to keep the government open after October 1. House Republicans would refuse to pass any continuing resolution that funded the law.
But the shutdown strategy, intended as a blow against Obamacare and its Democratic backers, has instead blown up in GOP hands. Polling this week indicates that Republicans are being blamed for an unpopular shutdown. And Obamacare, despite its significant troubles, is actually becoming more popular.
The public pins the blame on the GOP for the shutdown by a 22-point margin, according to the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. Favorability toward both the Republican party and its conservative wing, the Tea Party, are both at all-time lows for the poll.
Meanwhile, the popularity of Obamacare—ostensibly the target of the shutdown—is up somewhat since last month. It's still not popular, but 38 percent now say they think the law is a good idea, and 43 percent say it's a bad idea. Last month, it was 31 percent and 44 percent.
Maybe this is just due to short-term variations in the polling data. We've seen Obamacare surge and drop in popularity for brief periods before. But it seems pretty clear that, at minimum, the shutdown isn't hurting Obamacare's standing with the public. And it may even be making the law look better to some.
Given the technological train wreck we've seen over the past few weeks with the opening of Obamacare's health insurance exchanges, especially the practically unusable 36 exchanges run by the federal government, that's not what ought to be happening.
It's not as if the public is somehow convinced that Obamacare's exchanges are working smoothly, either. An AP survey from this week found that only 7 percent of the public thought the opening of the exchanges had gone quite well, and only 20 percent thought it had gone somewhat well. 40 percent of respondents thought it had gone not too well or not well at all.
Some prominent liberal supporters of the law aren't even making token attempts to defend the exchanges. The Washington Post's Ezra Klein said on MSNBC the other night that the administration "did a bad job" with the exchanges and "failed the people it was trying to help." The administration is barely able to defend itself. Daily Show host Jon Stewart practically roasted Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on his show Monday night. In Pittsburgh, Sebelius spoke at an Obamacare sign-up event at which no one was able to sign up—a common experience in states with federally run exchanges.
It's too much to say that all this is getting ignored. But it's not dominating the news like it could, or should. Instead, the focus is on the shutdown and the surrounding negotiations. At a White House press conference this week, President Obama took questions for an hour. Not one of them was about the abysmal performance of his signature legislative achievement.
This was a blown opportunity. But it was more than that. It was a blown opportunity that could have been, should have been, and indeed was foreseen. Conservative columnists like Ramesh Ponnuru practically predicted the results of this week's polling as far back as July, when the defunding plan was first percolating through the Republican ecosystem. Republican legislators like Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Ok.), not exactly a fiscal moderate, warned that the plan was doomed to failure.
The party went ahead with it anyway. But at this point, Republicans have lost the plot. The shutdown isn't about Obamacare anymore. It's not really about anything, or at least not any specific policy goals. Instead it's about making a stand against the president and his party, regardless of the cost. What started out as an impossible fantasy of striking a big blow against Obamacare may end up harming critics of the law and their cause more than it helps.