The fight over ObamaCare and a government shutdown is being driven by confusion, arrogance, political opportunism, and history. It is most definitely not being driven by principle. Really, principle? In Washington? Please.
So which side has the upper hand in this embarrassing circus? Let's examine each of the motivators:
Many Americans say ObamaCare is horrible, according to a CNBC poll released on Thursday. But they also believe the Affordable Care Act is pretty good. (Spoiler alert: They're the same thing, folks). It's the name "Obama" that is driving opinion here, not detailed knowledge of the law that bears his name. Both support and opposition for "ObamaCare" are higher than support and opposition for the Affordable Care Act.
The confusion is echoed in another recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation. A huge chunk of Americans — 44 percent — either don't know ObamaCare is the law, think it was repealed by Congress, or believe it was overturned by the Supreme Court.
Both sides are spinning this. Even though they've had years to sell it to the public, the White House claims confusion is to blame for ObamaCare's negative ratings; officials say the numbers will turn around once more people learn about it. Republicans say the numbers speak for themselves — and will get even worse once more people learn about it. Advantage: GOP
News flash: President Obama is an arrogant man. But no more so than smug know-it-alls like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, who is quickly making enemies even among his fellow Senate Republicans. Equally arrogant are the young Tea Party Turks in the House, who seem unaware that the president won re-election not even a year ago by five million popular votes and 126 electoral votes. They also seem to forget that the Supreme Court — led by George W. Bush's handpicked Chief Justice John Roberts — upheld ObamaCare in June 2012. The far right in both the House and Senate, who are always preaching about the sanctity of the Constitution, seem to respect neither the voice of the people nor the rule of law when they disagree with it.
Obama says the House is holding the nation, the economy, our credit rating, and our global reputation hostage by threatening a shutdown if it doesn't get its way. And he's not going to negotiate with people like that. "Why should he?" an aide says. "His re-election and the Supreme Court were referendums on ObamaCare. Enough is enough."
But Republicans see it differently. In their world view, Obama is the one threatening a shutdown by vetoing a spending bill he doesn't like. Arrogance begets arrogance. Advantage: Obama
Speaking of Cruz, if you missed his 21-hour faux-filibuster against ObamaCare last week, you missed, among other things, a discussion of Green Eggs and Ham, the acting ability of Ashton Kutcher, and a pretty good impression of Darth Vader. Somehow all this was meant to showcase his opposition to ObamaCare, but what Cruz really wanted to showcase was himself. The junior senator from Texas, who has even less electoral experience than Obama had when he ran in 2008, wants to be president. His kinda-sorta filibuster was an attention-getting stunt, and it worked: He is now atop new polls for the 2016 GOP nomination. As Republicans are fond of saying, Mission Accomplished. But Cruz's stunt did nothing to defund ObamaCare. It just burned up time and made Cruz himself look petty. Just ask his GOP colleagues in the Senate.
Meantime, on Friday, Republicans were too busy threatening chaos to miss a clever juxtaposition: President Obama came into the briefing room to say he had just gotten off the phone with Hasan Rouhani, the new Iranian president. It was a dramatic moment — the first contact between leaders of the U.S. and Iran in 34 years — and a diplomatic breakthrough on Tehran's nuclear program suddenly seemed possible. Obama's timing wasn't coincidental. The week ended with him looking like a president, dealing with weighty issues of war and peace, while Republicans discussed the finer points of Dr. Seuss. The optics of it were such that it contributed to the perception that the GOP is just playing games and pandering to its base. Advantage: Obama
We've seen this movie before. A shutdown showdown between President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich dragged on for several weeks between 1995 and 1996; and there was a budget crisis just two years ago that caused a humiliating downgrade of the U.S. government's credit rating.
Who "won" those showdowns? And what do those two messes tell us about what's likely to happen now? There are similarities, but there are more differences — and that makes any reading of tea leaves, never easy, even more difficult.
Polls show Republicans took more blame for the 1995 meltdown, and Bill Clinton easily won re-election the next year. Democrats point to this as evidence that all they have to do is hang tough. Perhaps. But it's also true that Clinton was re-elected largely because the economy was booming in 1996, which certainly isn't the case now. Democrats also seem to forget that Republicans added to their majorities in both the House and Senate that year; it was that strength in the House that fueled Clinton's impeachment just two years later.
What about the 2011 standoff? Both sides blamed each other as always, but a year later Obama won re-election and Democrats gained eight seats in the House and two in the Senate. But I'll bet just as millions don't understand ObamaCare now, they didn't understand credit markets and how they function then. Jobs and the economy was the dominant issue last year, not S&P knocking Uncle Sam's credit rating down to AA+. In other words, a non-issue with voters.
And now? Despite all the hysteria inside the Beltway, the shutdown that starts tonight is probably a non-issue as well. Most Americans, I suspect, are more concerned with things that they believe have a direct impact on their lives right now: gasoline prices (which are falling), the job market (which is gradually healing), housing, and so forth. Because the length and severity of the coming shutdown are unknown, it's hard to predict a "winner," but it's easy to predict a loser: The American people, who deserve better from their leaders than petty squabbles over whether the federal government should continue functioning.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- How our botched understanding of 'science' ruins everything
- The science of sex: 4 harsh truths about dating and mating
- How U2 became the new Nickelback
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
- 13 Urban Outfitters controversies
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- Russia is stealthily threatening America with nuclear war
- Save the world... by changing how you pee
Subscribe to the Week