If you're a decent person, or someone who hasn't contracted a political bug, the most satisfying thing about the Affordable Care Act's enrollment total is the knowledge that it's improved many people's lives, and contributed to a sizable reduction in the uninsured population. But if you have a lot invested in the law's success, you're also relieved to have an answer to everyone trying to create the impression that Obamacare is a slow-rolling fiasco.
Republicans won't stop saying these things, but there's an amusing tension between calling something a "slow-rolling fiasco" in one breath and then positing that perhaps 10 percent of the millions of new beneficiaries won't pay their premiums in the next. Or pointing out that the respectable under-35 enrollment rate also includes children. Why nitpick a fiasco?
But the significance here runs far deeper than a discredited talking point. We're all familiar with the idea that Republicans have placed Obamacare opposition at the center of their midterm election strategy. "Obamacare opposition" is a reasonably accurate shorthand for the GOP's 2014 agenda. But the GOP didn't settle upon that strategy based on a belief that first-year enrollment would exceed expectations or that the law would at worst be an ambiguous success.
The strategy only makes sense if you really believe that the law will produce regular political dividends—that "slow-rolling fiasco" isn't just a talking point, but a close approximation of reality.
Taken together, eight million enrollees, lower-than-expected premium increases, and smaller fiscal costs together leave a great void in the political landscape that pathetic enrollment, large premium spikes, and runaway spending were supposed to occupy.
Obamacare's failures were supposed to be myriad, egregious, and glaring—the kind of things that would do more than create subject matter for Republican political ads. Republicans were expecting to spend May through October flogging Obamacare with every available switch.
The House floor was to be a clearinghouse for all kinds of anti-Obamacare bills, many cloaked in the language of mitigation. If enrollment had come in way under projection, it could have been construed as evidence that the law as designed would penalize people for buying a product almost nobody wants, and thus that the penalty should be eliminated. If premiums were expected to soar, one plausible remedy would be to degrade the law's benefit guarantees. If the risk pool skewed much older than it does, Republicans would have had a strong rhetorical argument for eliminating or capping risk-corridor payouts—why should taxpayers be on the hook for insurance company losses?—and revive their misleading "Obamacare bailout" attacks.
Simultaneously, Republicans were counting on these same predicted failures to create points of inquiry for their committee chairmen. In their waking fantasies, they imagined hauling insurance company executives before the Energy and Commerce Committee to admit that the law had put their industry at risk or would require them to impose triple-digit premium increases. Normally, most media outlets would pay no attention to insurance commissioner testimony, but if they were coming to D.C. to attest to the havoc the Affordable Care Act was wreaking in their states, it would create a feeding frenzy.
Right now, Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa is demanding more information from the administration about the level of White House involvement in Healthcare.gov decision-making. I think this is actually a worthy line of inquiry—the Healthcare.gov outage was a big problem and the public is entitled to a more thorough accounting thereof. But it just doesn't matter nearly as much now that the site works and has cleared millions of new beneficiaries. If it hadn't been fixed fairly quickly (or at all), it would remain one of the biggest stories in politics. As things stand right now, it's only of urgent interest to Fox News and other conservative news organizations.
All along, Democrats had planned to spend the months leading up to the election promoting a popular agenda unrelated to health-care reform. Majority Leader Harry Reid has used his control over Senate floor to create a staging ground where Republicans regularly prove their opposition or resistance to things like equal-pay laws, a higher minimum wage, and so on. When Healthcare.gov wasn't working, and enrollment appeared to be sagging, Republicans—and even some ideologically neutral political reporters—characterized these efforts as attempts to distract attention from Obamacare.
Under the circumstances it was difficult for the contrast between agendas to break out and become the story of the election. Now that obstacle has been removed. And if the GOP's only response is to flail oddly and angrily about Obamacare, it will be a prelude to an ironic reversal of fortune. Where some members of the media were prepared until recently to interpret the Democratic agenda as a distraction from Obamacare, more will soon come to interpret Republicans' obsession with Obamacare as a distraction from their complete lack of one.
In a recent article, conservative political analyst Sean Trende examined how an election that looks so ripe for Republicans could go sour. "The way this could occur is fairly straightforward: The Affordable Care Act improves; there’s no massive rate shock for premiums in September or October; and the economy slowly gains ground. This should propel President Obama’s job approval upward, lifting the collective Democratic boat." As Danny Vinik has noted, none of this is remotely implausible. And if something along these lines begins taking shape, Republicans would have to revisit the idea that they can just block Democratic legislation, scream "Obummercare!" and let a friendly electoral map do all the work.
Brian Beutler is a senior editor at The New Republic.