Only a week ago, Republicans were at a nadir. The party's seemingly quixotic focus on repealing ObamaCare had dragged it into a deeply unpopular fiscal showdown. Polls showed the public overwhelmingly blaming the GOP for the shutdown crisis, dragging the party's approval rating down to historic lows. Many asked if Republicans could lose control of the House in 2014.
But now, the disastrous rollout of Heathcare.gov has fallen into the party's lap like manna from heaven. What was initially reported to be teething problems turned out to be integral, systemic errors in the site's architecture. The White House has been forced to do the unthinkable and extend the enrollment period to buy health insurance through the federal exchange, giving Americans six extra weeks to sign up before being taxed for not doing so. It's not quite a delay to the mandate, but it's a step in the right direction as far as the GOP is concerned.
The challenge for Republicans now is how to press their advantage. How do they keep up pressure against the law without it turning into another kamikaze mission like the shutdown? Can House Speaker John Boehner give his conservative caucus an alternative to holding the government ransom over ObamaCare?
The answer may lie in congressional hearings. Today, the website's contractors attempted to explain to the House Energy & Commerce Committee how the healthcare exchanges went so badly wrong, and whose heads should roll for it. The leading candidate for occupational decapitation, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, is due to testify next week.
Forcing the administration to admit to a serious lack of preparation would surely hasten the moment when Republicans can pin Sebelius' scalp to their wall. But if the strategy is to succeed, the GOP must decide if they want genuine congressional oversight, said David Nather at Politico, or "heckling from the partisan peanut gallery":
Republicans have a lot to prove in the hearings. They can use the investigative powers of Congress pry out the answers to the serious questions that everyone has about the website — Democrats as well as Republicans — and repair their standing with the public by showing how thoughtful oversight ought to be done. Or they can spend the whole time yelling, "BOOOOO! This is never going to work." [Politico]
Done right, congressional hearings could keep the focus on the law's failures for months. The question then becomes, how to delay the law yet further. Republicans are unlikely to be satisfied with a six-week enrollment extension, and hope to push the deadline for signing up into 2015, allowing them to fight the midterm elections on an anti-ObamaCare platform and possibly repeal it thereafter.
President Obama is unlikely to heed Republican calls for a longer delay — he has successfully ignored them so far — but he may listen to members of his own party. According to CNN, all Senate Democrats up for re-election in 2014 are in support of a brief delay to the mandate. Red state Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) has written a bill that includes a one-year delay to the mandate. The more Republicans can argue a bipartisan consensus for delay, the more likely Obama will have to concede.
But none of this will be possible if the GOP overreaches. And liberals are already pointing out that the noisy Republican outrage over the website's failure sounds hollow, to say the least, coming from a party that defines itself by opposition to the law. Voters won't quickly forget the "GOP's four-year-long fire hose of bad faith with respect to all matters of healthcare reform," said Brian Beutler at Salon, and quickly identifies its righteous anger as a political "pretext for undermining the entire law."
The GOP can benefit politically from the website's failures — but only if it recognizes that it can't shut down the law overnight, and instead takes a long game approach. It will also need to behave like the adult in the room rather than the screaming toddler. Self-described "genetic Republican" John G. Taft — great-grandson of president William Howard Taft — reminds the party of its traditional role in today's New York Times:
The Republican Party is (or should be) the Stewardship Party. The Republican brand is (or should be) about responsible behavior. The Republican Party is (or should be) at long last, about decency. [The New York Times]
Taft concludes by lamenting "what a long way we have yet to go." But the GOP could yet prove him wrong.