Can Democrats Recover From the Obamacare Catastrophe?

If Republicans don’t flub the coming fiscal debates like they did in the fall, voters will focus squarely on the health care rollout.

US President Barack Obama pauses while speaking during an event on the grounds of the White House December 3, 2013 in Washington, DC. Obama spoke about the Affordable Care Act and the continuing efforts to recover from the failed rollout of the healthcare marketplace.
National Journal
Charlie Cook
Dec. 5, 2013, 4 p.m.

Most graphs of polling data show shifts that are very gradu­al. (Track­ing real-time changes in poll res­ults of­ten is about as ex­cit­ing as watch­ing paint dry.) Re­cently, however, the Huff­Post Poll­ster web­site pro­duced a graph of na­tion­al polling on Con­gress that showed one of the most dra­mat­ic shifts I’ve ever seen in 40 years of in­volve­ment in polit­ics. It charts re­sponses to the ques­tion of wheth­er voters would like Re­pub­lic­ans or Demo­crats to con­trol the House.

The year began with Demo­crats 8 points ahead of Re­pub­lic­ans on the gen­er­ic con­gres­sion­al bal­lot test, 46 per­cent to 38 per­cent. The GOP had come out of the 2012 elec­tions lick­ing its wounds, hav­ing lost a pres­id­en­tial elec­tion that, just a year earli­er, ap­peared highly win­nable. As the year pro­gressed, the Demo­crat­ic ad­vant­age gradu­ally but con­sist­ently de­clined, par­al­lel­ing a sim­il­ar erosion of Pres­id­ent Obama’s job-ap­prov­al rat­ing since his reelec­tion. The drop in Demo­crats’ num­bers leveled off in June, to a stat­ist­ic­ally in­sig­ni­fic­ant 1 per­cent­age point lead over Re­pub­lic­ans. It is im­port­ant to re­mem­ber that there is a his­tor­ic tend­ency for this poll ques­tion to skew by a couple of points in fa­vor of Demo­crats, mak­ing that mea­ger edge al­most cer­tainly an il­lu­sion.

Then, in Au­gust, state­ments star­ted com­ing from some of the more exot­ic Re­pub­lic­ans in the House and Sen­ate that per­haps it was a good idea to shut down the gov­ern­ment over the im­ple­ment­a­tion of the Af­ford­able Care Act. Not­with­stand­ing warn­ings from House and Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers and ex­per­i­enced (and wiser) mem­bers that such an ef­fort would be a dis­aster for the party, the Re­pub­lic­ans in the “kami­kaze caucus” barreled ahead, over the cliff, shut­ting down the gov­ern­ment.

Sure enough, the Demo­crat­ic num­bers in the gen­er­ic bal­lot began to pull dra­mat­ic­ally ahead, re­sem­bling a steep as­cent up the side of a moun­tain, end­ing about 7 points ahead of Re­pub­lic­ans, 45 per­cent to 38 per­cent — an ad­vant­age that, were it to last un­til the elec­tion, would give Demo­crats a chance to re­cap­ture the House.

Then, in mid-Oc­to­ber, the fo­cus shif­ted from the gov­ern­ment-shut­down fiasco to a dif­fer­ent de­bacle, this time a Demo­crat­ic dis­aster: the botched launch of the Obama­care web­site and sub­sequent im­ple­ment­a­tion prob­lems of the health care law, in­clud­ing ter­min­a­tion no­tices go­ing out to many people who had in­sur­ance cov­er­age. The Demo­crat­ic num­bers from the gen­er­ic-bal­lot test dropped from 45 per­cent to 37 per­cent, and Re­pub­lic­ans moved up to 40 per­cent. This 10-point net shift from a Demo­crat­ic ad­vant­age of 7 points to a GOP edge of 3 points in just over a month is breath­tak­ing, per­haps an un­pre­ced­en­ted swing in such a short peri­od. Oc­cur­ring around Elec­tion Day, such a shift would prob­ably amount to the dif­fer­ence between Demo­crats pick­ing up at least 10 House seats, pos­sibly even the 17 needed for a ma­jor­ity, and in­stead los­ing a half-dozen or so seats.

Of course, with the elec­tion 11 months away, it’s too early to get really ex­cited about this turn­about, but it demon­strates the volat­il­ity we are see­ing these days in Amer­ic­an polit­ics. It must also give Demo­crats a sense of déjà vu, back to when the bot­tom fell out for them dur­ing the 2009-10 fight over pas­sage of the Af­ford­able Care Act. In that case, though, they suffered a gradu­al de­cline in party for­tunes, start­ing in the sum­mer of 2009 and cul­min­at­ing in the loss of 63 seats and the House ma­jor­ity in Novem­ber 2010 — the biggest drop in House seats for either party since 1948 and the largest in a midterm elec­tion since 1938. Demo­crats didn’t fare much bet­ter in the Sen­ate, los­ing six seats.

No one knows for sure how the next few phases of ACA im­ple­ment­a­tion will go. Demo­crats’ hopes that their for­tunes will im­prove as a res­ult of up­com­ing fisc­al de­bates are start­ing to look pretty shaky, however. Demo­crats may be count­ing on Re­pub­lic­ans to en­gage in more self-de­struct­ive be­ha­vi­or when gov­ern­ment fund­ing ex­pires in mid-Janu­ary and the debt ceil­ing ex­pires in Feb­ru­ary.

But it looks in­creas­ingly likely that Re­pub­lic­ans will go along with a deal, avert­ing a spend­ing/debt-ceil­ing crisis, and not re­peat the dis­aster of this fall. Avoid­ing such a fight would keep most of the pub­lic’s fo­cus on Obama­care, and, in Re­pub­lic­ans’ eyes, give them the gift that will keep on giv­ing. At this point, that doesn’t ap­pear to be an un­real­ist­ic ex­pect­a­tion.

But what will hap­pen next? A jaded ob­serv­er might sug­gest that cer­tain Sen­ate Demo­crats may try to move the goal­posts of a budget deal, push­ing for ad­di­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an con­ces­sions to the point that House Speak­er John Boehner can’t de­liv­er enough of the hard-liners in his caucus, thus cre­at­ing a re­peat of last fall’s show­down. Of course, that is a highly cyn­ic­al view, but it does not seem im­plaus­ible that Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id might try such a strategy. The catch is wheth­er Demo­crats could po­ten­tially sab­ot­age a budget deal without leav­ing any in­crim­in­at­ing fin­ger­prints. The cyn­ics might be wrong but, then again, Re­id has six Sen­ate seats up next year in states that Mitt Rom­ney car­ried by double-di­git mar­gins. We’ll see.

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