So opponents of Obamacare have one big thing going for us: the roll-out of the federal exchange has been epically awful. Really, just so terribly bad that it appears very few customers have been able to sign up yet. The federal exchange website had to shut down to try and repair some of its problems, and that doesn’t seem to have made anything better.
With an unexpected gift like this, an aggressive political strategist would try to capitalize on it. Instead, House Speaker Boehner has decided to give President Obama the one thing Obamacare needs: more time. Boehner proposes not just to let him have it, but to give it to him for free. We’re hearing this morning that Boehner will offer a 6-week increase in the federal debt ceiling, “demanding” nothing more than a promise from Obama to negotiate on federal spending in the interim.
I have no doubt that Boehner sees this as playing for time for the GOP-held House, as well as giving Obama time. Perhaps if there’s the appearance of a short-term resolution, and the spotlight and pressure are taken off of the spending negotiations, Boehner and Reid and Obama can put something together. The problem right now is the indignation being drummed up against such a prospect by the Ted Cruz wing of the GOP. Buy some time to deflect that and get the negotiations back behind closed doors where they belong.
Naturally, if you accept the premise that “the” problem here is the “Tea Party,” you’ll be blind to other options. You’re buying into a whole narrative with that premise, one of whose elements is the Beltway refrain that Obamacare is a done deal, can’t be delayed, and is not on the table.
But obviously, Obamacare can be delayed. It has been delayed in a number of ways by executive fiat. Proposing that the individual mandate be delayed is hardly the form of unthinkable “nuclear” bomb-throwing that even some right-wing pundits are making it out to be. What it is is something Obama really, really doesn’t want. And one big reason he doesn’t want to delay it is not so much that it matters to paying for the program – who soberly thinks that’s his real concern? – as that it matters to the timing of the election cycle.
Obama wants to take the first individual mandate hurdle in the next 12 months, because the initial fine is small, and it will be a done deal by November 2014. The pain of not complying with the individual mandate increases in 2015, but that’s after the 2014 election. The political freight of getting Obamacare entrenched comes with the initial imposition of the mandate. The freight was going to be so great, for 2014, that Obama decided to delay the employer mandate – which affects unions and big donors – until after the election.
Look around at the sticker shock people are experiencing with the insurance upheavals necessitated by implementation of the individual mandate. Now imagine voters encountering that on 1 October 2014 instead of 1 October 2013. That’s what Obama wants to avoid. He wants this to all be in the past in November 2014.
What does this mean about what Republicans should do today? How about this: play for real time. Think more than a few weeks down the road. One of the few things House Republicans have some control over is when to force the next debt-ceiling showdown. One of the hard facts they face is that what they do about Obamacare is going to be the biggest factor affecting the 2014 election. (If they don’t understand that – if they think their voter base is just going to move on, and absorb without blaming the GOP leadership whatever blows Obamacare administers – they seriously misjudge the mood out here.)
The House could propose something the GOP and Obama (and, importantly, House Democrats) could both live with: delaying the individual mandate until after the 2014 election, and raising the debt ceiling to allow sequester-level spending until after the election as well. In other words, take both issues off the table as potential political crisis points between now and November 2014.
The time to have a death-defying showdown over the debt ceiling and the budget is after the Republicans retake the Senate. The national debt certainly remains a key issue for GOP voters, but there is no net gain from having any more crisis points over it before January 2015.
Meanwhile, simply delaying Obamacare’s individual mandate for exactly a year would time its biggest political impact for the month prior to the 2014 election. But the delay need not do that. It could be backed up by one quarter, or two, into fiscal year 2015 – which would dovetail with the postponement Obama authorized for the employer mandate.
A positive factor for this proposal right now is that hardly anyone has been able to sign up for the federal exchange so far. One way to assist the insurance companies handling those customers and their claims would be to offer temporary tax relief. There is more than one way to structure it so that customers who actually want to could still sign up in the federal exchange in FY2014, while the individual mandate is delayed.
Republicans, of course, would also view the hiatus as a period of opportunity: one in which to continue with – refine and advertise – proposals that would repeal and replace Obamacare. The federal exchange need not be made a fool’s errand for those who have already signed up for it. The people it could be preserved for, in some form, are those with preexisting conditions, for whom coverage has truly been neither affordable nor even available (although Republicans have made multiple proposals over the last two decades to provide such coverage, without creating a comprehensive, mandatory national-health-care program).
Some special provision may be required for the state exchanges as well, although in theory, the premium revenues that begin flowing to the insurance companies in those exchanges in January should make them sustainable for the time being.
The ramifications of proposing this deal are neither unthinkable nor catastrophic. They take some thinking through. The deal itself offers something for everyone; a compromise, to be sure, but still something desirable and useful.
Right now, while the optics are bad, Obama is getting a healthy share of the blame, and the federal exchange is a bad joke, is the time to negotiate for the best possible deal. Kicking the can down the road merely gives Obama and the Democrats time. Those who excoriate Ted Cruz can’t possibly expect their fellow Republicans to think that what Boehner is doing – deciding not to fight, giving the opponent time to regroup and consolidate his hold over new territory, leaving the future of our own campaign unplanned and open-ended – is smarter than what Cruz did: make a stand on ground we had not yet relinquished.
We have no reason at this point to suppose that Boehner has anything up his sleeve. Apparently the GOP strategy really is to burn Moscow before Napoleon’s advancing army, and hang it around the Democrats’ necks. The problem with that, of course, is that you have to burn Moscow (not to mention the hundreds of miles of fertile land – the big population center – between Moscow and Poland). The rich can flee to their country dachas. But what do the rest of us do?