It's clear to all but the most blinkered that the "Defund Now!" strategy for blocking the implementation of Obamacare has been worse than a failure. Obamacare will be funded, but the fight has exacerbated the already low standing of the Republican Party. Obama's approval rating has ticked up during the shutdown, while Republicans are now competing with the Taliban in approval.
Architects of the shutdown plan assured us that when Republicans took a stand on principle, the voters would be impressed. The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll showed that 51 percent of respondents believe the president is putting his own political agenda ahead of what's best for the country. Pretty good? Not really. Seventy percent say that about congressional Republicans.
As for Obamacare, 38 percent now say the law is a good idea, up from 31 percent last month. Translation: If Republicans oppose it, voters assume it must have heretofore undiscovered virtues. If this keeps up, Democratic donors can close their wallets and permit Republicans to make the case for Democratic candidates.
Conservative activists such as Michael Needham of Heritage Action, which advocated and helped fund the defund strategy, assure us that they are not partisan. Needham told Stephen Moore of the Wall Street Journal " ... There is nothing in my mission statement that says anything about the Republican Party. Our mission is to advance the conservative agenda. We are nonpartisan and we really mean it."
That's obvious. As someone who has attempted, in my small way, for many years to advance conservative ideas, I would love to see the nation embrace what we believe. I'd also like an unknown billionaire to leave me his fortune in a bequest. But the experiment of the last two weeks should demonstrate conclusively that shouting and stamping feet does not avail, nor does disdaining the fortunes of the Republican Party.
For all its flaws, the GOP remains the only vehicle for advancing conservative ideas in practice, and it is the only possible vehicle for saving this country from the truly awful consequences of Democratic governance. If the Republican Party loses all purchase with voters, Democrats will do to America what they've done to Detroit, Philadelphia, and Chicago. The health of conservatism cannot be decoupled from the standing of the Republican Party, and it is not too much to say that the welfare of the nation depends upon the Republicans gaining ground electorally. It is therefore self-indulgent and even irresponsible to say, "I'm a conservative, but I'm not a Republican."
The battle over Obamacare is clearly worth fighting. The good news is that Republicans will have a key ally in the coming months -- Obamacare itself. Americans may not be philosophically opposed to government-centric healthcare, but they have been known to punish any party that is perceived as threatening something they value. Arguably, Republicans were rewarded with control of Congress in 1994 because Hillarycare was seen as a danger to the employer-provided insurance with which most Americans were pleased.
As Obamacare rolls out -- maddening those who attempt to enroll on exchanges with exasperating errors, robbing many spouses of coverage, increasing premiums and deductibles, causing employers to shift personnel to part-time status, violating the privacy of enrollees, and flagrantly violating the promises made on its behalf -- voters will be open, to say the least, to alternatives.
Republicans cannot succeed by suggesting 1) that Obamacare is the worst policy innovation in two generations, and that 2) once implemented, voters will clasp it to their bosoms and never let go. Instead, they must let Obamacare do the talking and then be ready with alternatives.
Obamacare was aimed at solving the problem of the uninsured, which, even under the most optimistic assumptions, it will not do. As is typical of Democratic solutions, it imposes a nationwide mandate on everyone to solve a discrete problem of a few. The issue of the uninsured is arguably not the most burning problem (many already have access to other government programs, for example). The problem of pre-existing conditions, by contrast, is genuine. James C. Capretta and Tom Miller, writing in National Affairs, have outlined a plan involving subsidized high-risk pools to cover those with pre-existing conditions. Such smaller-scale reforms that address real problems, rather than government-aggrandizing massive bureaucratic mazes, should be the Republican way. Once schooled by Obamacare, the public may be ready to listen.