Bad Timing All Around

So Republicans made an attack on Obamacare the central justification for a government-wide shutdown on the very day open enrollment for the new exchanges proved what an incredible demand there was for the program. And now they are drifting steadily away from a focus on Obamacare into some sort of debt-limit-related “grand bargain” just as trouble with the enrollment process is getting really serious. Here’s Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas this morning:

Republicans who decided to shut down the government this week rather than relentlessly message against the Affordable Care Act’s glitches did the law a great favor. The site’s flaws are real — and if there was more focus on them, they’d be quite embarrassing.

Of course, the problem for Republicans is that the proximate cause of the problems directly undercuts their agenda. The fact that the site is buckling under the traffic is not a reason to defund or delay the law. Indeed, it’s perverse to use the overwhelming demand as a reason to take the law away from the people who so clearly need it. And even if it takes a few more days or even weeks until the site is working as well as it should be, the open enrollment period still has another five months and 27 days (or so) to run. These are fixable, not fatal, problems.

But the Obama administration did itself — and the millions of people who wanted to explore signing up — a terrible disservice by building a web site that, four days into launch, is still unusable for most Americans. They knew that the only way to quiet the law’s critics was to implement it effectively. And building a working e-commerce web site is not an impossible task, even with the added challenges of getting various government data services to talk to each other. Instead, the Obama administration gave critics arguing that the law isn’t ready for primetime more ammunition for their case.

There are signs the site is improving. The early word from insurers is that basically no one was able to sign up during the first two days, though successful applications began to “trickle” in on day three. HHS says that added capacity has cut wait times by a third, though wait times aren’t the only problem, as I found when I got through the queue only to have the site crash on me five or six screens in. The Obama administration need to get the marketplace working, and fast.

Yeah, no question about that. But at the same time, public hostility to the idea of shutting down the government over Obamacare, already sky high, may be hardening, and it’s also not clear the congressional GOP can keep switching demands and switching hostages without losing its already very low credibility. Wonkblog is right: had Republicans signed onto a short-term CR and just sniped from the sidelines about Obamacare’s difficult enrollment rollout, they’d be in much better shape.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.