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GOP seizes advantage on Obamacare, White House struggles to defend: An alternative history of the past two months

APTOPIX Obama Budget Battle
Republican senators, from left, Ted Cruz of Texas, John McCain of Arizona, David Vitter of Louisiana, and Richard Shelby of Alabama, walk in the rain back to their bus at the North Portico of the White House in Washington. (AP/Charles Dharapak)

What if, instead of throwing its political energy into a failing effort to defund Obamacare, the Republican Party had spent the month of August, and then September, and now October, pounding the Obama administration on the arrival of the president's national health care scheme? What if the days before October 1 had been filled with Republican predictions of calamity, and the days after filled with Republican exploitation of that calamity? If the GOP had taken that path, the party might be in a very different place than it is today. The White House, too.

Everyone knew the first of October would bring the opening of the Obamacare exchanges, and there was good reason to think the opening would be troubled. Why did Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, one of the architects of the law, express concern in April that the Obama administration was failing to prepare the public for what he feared might be a "train wreck"? Why did Gary Cohen, a key player in the Obamacare bureaucracy, say a month earlier that he worried the Obamacare exchanges would be "a Third World experience" for consumers? Why did President Obama delay the employer mandate? Why did the administration give up in advance on the task of verifying whether Obamacare subsidy recipients actually qualify for their subsidies, opening the door to the possibility of widespread fraud? And most importantly, why did the administration in July back away from President Obama's famous claim that anyone satisfied with his or her health plan could keep it after the arrival of Obamacare, no matter what?

In other words, there was an enormous amount of bad news about Obamacare. And it was coming October 1. Of course, Republicans did not know the specific problems that would plague the website once the administration attempted to bring Obamacare online, but the GOP knew that, in general, what was coming would be bad. So what if Republicans had put together a major campaign of ads, events, townhalls, speeches, hearings, web documentaries, publications, tweets, handouts, and more, involving Republican officials from the local level to influential governors to top leaders in Congress, to showcase the problems of Obamacare as October 1 approached?

What if that had been the theme of the August recess? And in September, there began to appear stories of Americans who buy their coverage on the individual market receiving letters from insurers telling them they would no longer have coverage, or that the price of their coverage would go up substantially. More stories for the Obamacare campaign: here was the living, breathing proof that Obama's if-you-like-your-coverage-you-can-keep-it pledge was false. Of course, Obama said that many times, often on video, so Republicans could have made plenty of ads, for the Internet and perhaps some for broadcast too, juxtaposing Obama's promise with yet another family who had lost coverage.

And then came October 1. After that date arrived, Republicans would have had a true embarrassment of riches when it came to material for the anti-Obamacare campaign. Millions of people tried, and failed, to log into the Obamacare website; lots of stories there. And what about the tales of pathetically small numbers of Americans who actually succeeded in signing up for coverage? For example, there was a report that five people in all of Iowa had signed up; that state's GOP leaders could have been enlisted to make sure everyone knew that.

The various stories would have given Republicans an opportunity to make a much bigger point than simply portraying Obamacare as the work of a gang that couldn't shoot straight. The people who designed the website are the ones who will run the national health care system, Republicans would stress. They'll know everything about your finances and your health. Is that what you want?

As October wore on, the Republican campaign would have focused on the administration's secretiveness about Obamacare's problems. In a Washington Post story Saturday and a New York Times story Sunday, experts involved in the Obamacare effort were highly critical of its failures, but were afraid to reveal their names, for fear of provoking the wrath of the administration. Shouldn't Republicans in Congress want to hear their stories publicly? Beyond that, there is the issue of the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on the so-far failing effort. Where did it go? How was it spent? And then there is the question of whether top Obama administration officials misled lawmakers about Obamacare preparations. Repeatedly, officials from Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius down assured Congress that the run-up was going well and that the system would work. Now we know that top officials knew full well of Obamacare's problems. Was their congressional testimony fully true? As part of the GOP campaign, House Republicans would hold hearings on that and many other questions surrounding the rollout.

The campaign would also focus on the next stage of problems with Obamacare. Once the administration figures out its technical issues, as it presumably will, Obamacare will move into the sticker-shock phase, as millions of Americans discover they will pay higher premiums, or higher deductibles, or both, for the same type of insurance they had before Obamacare. The Republican campaign would go all-out to inform Americans that that is on the way. And at every step, the GOP would play Obama's promise: If you like your health coverage, you can keep it.

Of course, the White House would not be without defenses in the battle. The administration would continue its pro-Obamacare campaign, with money and organizing and Hollywood celebrities. But Republicans would have a lot of facts on their side. And as each new, unhappy story came to light, the White House would be using more and more of its resources to play defense.

And the public would likely be interested. A number of polls have shown that a majority of Americans have very little detailed knowledge of Obamacare. For them, the health care law was always something that was a year, or two, or three, away. But now it's here, and they'll need to learn about it, and fast. The Republican campaign would have filled in a lot of knowledge gaps, at just the moment Obamacare was finally arriving in Americans' lives.

But it didn't happen. The GOP chose instead to embark on its ill-fated drive to defund Obamacare. When that failed, Republicans made progressively weaker demands that the White House delay or somehow limit Obamacare, and those failed, too. In the meantime, the Republican effort has led to a partial shutdown of the government, now nearly two weeks old. And the shutdown battle has morphed into a fight over the debt limit and the possibility the nation will default on its debts next Thursday.

All that has done enormous damage to the GOP's Image. A recent Wall Street Journal poll found that just 24 percent of those surveyed have positive feelings toward the Republican Party, while 53 percent have negative feelings. The positive number is down more than ten points from a year ago, while the negative number is up ten points. As far as the shutdown itself is concerned, 53 percent of those surveyed blame Republicans more than anyone else, while 31 percent blame Obama. Seventy percent said Republicans "are putting their own political agenda ahead of what is good for the country."

Instead of pounding Obama on the mandates, defects, false promises, and expense of Obamacare, Republicans ended up pounding themselves.

Of course the GOP will have more chances to fight Obamacare in the future. Long after a continuing resolution has been passed and the debt limit raised, Obamacare will still be a major, and for many unwelcome, factor in American life. But what an opportunity missed, at such a crucial time.