Forty days into the rollout of Obamacare, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has to be looking for the hot tub time machine that would let him do September all over again.
You remember September, right? When Reid outwitted the half-cooked Republican strategy to defund Obamacare through a one-party game of Russian roulette?
Reid lost by winning. Like so many military generals and political strategists before him, the Nevada Democrat failed because he got caught fighting the last war.
Long before Republicans ginned up the shutdown gambit, Reid knew that Obamacare was set to be stillborn. He’s too smart not to have known. With that knowledge, Reid — and more importantly, the vulnerable class of 2008 senators who face the voters next fall — needed a delay more than the Republicans did.
But when presented with the chance to eat healthy vegetables, in the form of a face-saving Obamacare delay — covered in the gravy of being able to blame it all on his rigid, right-wing opponents — Reid instead pigged out on dessert. He opted for the sugar high of “winning” the shutdown itself, and used the same strategy he employed in a similar budget standoff last Christmas: He never gave an inch, never negotiated a word and waited on Republicans to cave.
Five weeks later, it’s not clear if Republicans would even grant Reid the same deal that made them salivate during the shutdown. Now it’s nervous Democrats who most want an Obamacare delay, whether they admit it in the newspapers or not.
The White House and its lackeys on Capitol Hill and in the punditocracy are feverishly working to blame the Affordable Care Act’s problems on a clunky website. But deep down they know their problem is math, not digital code.
The inarguable physics of Obamacare is that most people in America will sacrifice for the benefit of a few. Those “few” by and large already vote for the Democratic senators who are losing their bravery by the day. There are no new votes for Reid’s brigade to bank among the scant group wading through the website — and no software whiz can bring enough additional volume to change that.
This is tax cut politics in reverse — and no one should understand those mathematical realities more than the demagogues who make up Reid’s caucus. They’ve all made careers calling for higher taxes on a few to benefit the many. They, more than anyone, know that dynamic only works one direction.
More crudely, the problem for Democratic senators on the ballot in 2014 is that the swing voters who will decide their fate are not in the “few” who benefit from Obamacare. Instead, they are all in the other pool of Americans — those getting insurance cancellation notices, premium increases or shortened lists of available physicians covered under their employer-provided plans.
Obamacare was a political dog for Democrats from the start, based entirely on Americans’ skepticism of its government-expansionist theory. That baseline unpopularity has been confined mostly to people who are ideologically incompatible with Democrats — but nothing can keep the stench of Obamacare quarantined forever. Now that the law’s consequences are hitting mailboxes, it promises to become toxic among benefit-minded, politically agnostic pragmatists, too.
The post-mortems of political campaigns are littered with the kind of unanticipated disaster that now confronts Reid and the incumbent Senate Democrats up in 2014. Political strategists, like generals, do what has worked for them before — even when confronted with new and opposite environments.
Congress faces another budget showdown on Jan. 15 and yet another chance for Reid to unplug Obamacare. He knows a delay could kill the program — and he also knows a failure to delay could kill his Senate caucus. Again, he’s too smart not to know.
Reid’s iron stance against any Obamacare delay carries quantifiable risks. His shaky six-seat majority includes 10 of the 12 Senate seats to be contested next fall, and it’s hard to see it surviving a single-issue plebiscite on Obamacare. But if Reid puts the brakes on this colossal screw-up, all of us on the right will be forced to wage campaign 2014 on different, more neutral, ground.
To put it in terms Democrats might understand, if Harry Reid likes his majority, he can keep it — just not under Obamacare.
Brad Todd is a Republican media consultant and was lead consultant to the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2010 and 2012.