So the Republican-controlled House of Representatives — with the help of a couple of Democrats — has voted to defund ObamaCare. In response, President Obama, declaring that the Republicans are “trying to mess with me,” has accused the House of trying to shut down the government.
But the government will only shut down if Obama vetoes the budget that comes to his desk. The House budget funds everything except for implementation of the Affordable Care Act better known as ObamaCare. In truth, by refusing even to negotiate with the House leadership and threatening to veto a budget that doesn’t fit his own specifications, it is Obama, not the House of Representatives, who is putting the country at risk of a government shutdown.
It’s also sadly typical that Obama sees this debate as being all about him. The Republicans aren’t trying to overturn a deeply unpopular bill that was crammed through on a party-line vote despite widespread opposition by Republicans and Democrats. They’re “trying to mess with” Obama. It’s not about policies or governance, it’s about personalities.
Now Obama wants to do what Bill Clinton did to Newt Gingrich: Provoke a government shutdown that can be blamed on the House GOP. But there are problems. First, of course, Obama is no Bill Clinton: As the debacle over Syria, the defeat on gun control, and the disappearance of the once-trumpeted immigration initiative indicate, he’s no political wizard.
Indeed, one reason, I suspect, that he’s set down a red line on ObamaCare is that it’s pretty much the only legislative accomplishment he can claim as his legacy. The problem with that is that ObamaCare was unpopular in 2010 (that’s why Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who crammed it through, is no longer speaker, but a minority figure in a GOP-controlled House). ObamaCare has become, if anything, even more unpopular now as costs have risen way beyond projections even as the number of people covered has shrunk to less than half of what was advertised. People are losing their insurance — or their jobs — as policies are canceled and employers shift to part-time hiring in order to escape ObamaCare’s onerous restrictions. It’s no wonder that an NBC poll a week ago found that 45% of U.S. adults say that the Affordable Care Act will make the health care situation in the U.S. worse, while only 23% say the law will make it better. And as ABC notes, currently 52% oppose the law, and, even more striking: “In 16 ABC-Post polls since August 2009, it has never received majority support.”
Now, in spite of these sentiments, Obama will negotiate with Iran or Syria, but not with the House Republicans. And if the Senate passes the House bill and sends it to him, Obama will presumably enforce this red line and veto the budget, plunging the nation into a government shutdown.
That has risks for everyone. The GOP, of course, didn’t do so well in the Gingrich-Clinton faceoff, and many Republican leaders obviously fear a repeat, where they get blamed for the president’s refusal to compromise. But for Obama, there are risks, too. One is that the government shutdown happens, and nobody cares much — which has pretty much been the story of the sequester, our last budget bugbear. Faced with a tiny percentage cut in government, most voters yawned, or cheered, or moved on oblivious. Obama’s biggest worry should be that if big government shuts down, the same thing will happen.
Another risk is that a shutdown will contribute to an already growing sense of chaos and incompetence at the top. Obama can blame Republicans all he wants, but his party controls the White House and one house of Congress — two-thirds of the elected levers of power in Washington. If he can’t run the country with the White House and the Senate … well, maybe he just can’t run the country. After Syria, he’s lost a lot of credibility abroad; if he can’t keep the government from shutting down at home, he’s likely to lose credibility here as well, no matter how much finger-pointing he does. Ultimately, if the country seems to be in chaos, it’s the president who gets blamed.
The truth is, Obama would be better off cutting a deal with the Republicans. ObamaCare implementation, scheduled for Oct. 1, is going terribly and it seems very unlikely that it will be anything other than what former supporter Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., correctly characterized as a “train wreck.” In fact, they’ve already had to implement delays and exemptions because of problems. And now there’s word that the software doesn’t work. Instead of refusing to negotiate, Obama should be trying to work something out, instead of engaging in brinkmanship.
With better leadership, in fact, we wouldn’t be in this fight at all.
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Glenn Harlan Reynolds is professor of law at the University of Tennessee and the author of The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself. He also writes a regular column for USAToday.