Greek tragedy is all about hubris — overweening pride and how it brings men down. Hubris could be the story of the coming week in Washington but not for the reasons most think.
As the whole world knows, this city is fixated on a standoff between the president and Congressional Republicans (all in the House, some in the Senate) over Obamacare. As of late Sunday night, reports were that Congressional Democrats and the president were refusing to compromise or to even talk. “Running out the clock” was the Drudge Report’s overnight lead headline about the Democrats’ stance.
The Democrats clearly believe they don’t need to compromise. If a government shutdown comes, the media will blame the GOP – a perfect set up for their 2014 drive to take back the House.
After all, the GOP took the blame not just with the media but with the public at large during the 1995-6 stand off between Congressional Republicans and the Clinton Administration. But in three key ways, today is entirely different from the mid-1990s. And these differences all have roots in a hubris that could produce very different results.
The first difference is the reason for the shutdown. In the mid-90s, the standoff was about overall spending, an important issue, to be sure, but not at that time as intensely compelling Obamacare is now. Despite the president’s taunting characterization of GOP intent – wanting, he says, to keep millions from receiving health insurance — Obamacare is deeply unpopular throughout the country and has been from the first.
Deep unpopularity was why in 2009 the White House had to resort to not quite legitimate methods to ram the bill through a Senate that it controlled. Those tactics – including hounding Alaska senator Ted Stevens out of office on bogus charges – are among the reasons the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare’s official title) has never enjoyed full legitimacy.
And if anything, its legitimacy has declined since its passage. Nancy Pelosi’s infamous “We have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it,” looks more prescient and prideful by the day. The Catholic bishops supported the law’s passage, only to find that it endangered core tenants of the faith. Private sector unions supported it, only to find that its sloppy design is forcing full-time employees to go part time, destroying the 40-hour workweek for tens of millions of Americans. Many major corporations supported it, only to be surprised that the president’s “if you like it, you can keep it” pledge about their existing health insurance plans was in practice untenable.
Difference number two from 1995-6 is lead spokespeople. Much to the disgust of many in his own party, Ted Cruz has gone on point in the Senate. As he demonstrated on yesterday’s Meet the Press, Cruz is a far more talented spokesperson than any the GOP fielded two decades ago. Much of the party is ticked with him and perhaps with reason. But since Ronald Reagan left the White House, no Republican has stood up to the kind of questioning to which David Gregory subjected Cruz and come out so well. The Texas senator won every point and did so without a moment’s hesitation or dropping his smile. Democrats have come cockily to assume that with the mainstream media as air cover, they could dominate any issue battlefield. No more. There are other young GOP senators and governors like Cruz. The party is finding voice. It can make its case even under media fire.
The third difference from the mid-1990s is that this Tuesday the long-awaited Obamacare health exchanges go live online. Over the next three months tens of millions of Americans will log on to sign up. For them and, by word of mouth, tens of millions more, the exchanges will become the first material sign of whether Obamacare is what the president has promised or the GOP has warned about.
Democrats may have built a trap for themselves. The launch of Obamacare could prove an even bigger online fiasco than Mitt Romney’s infamous Election Day get-out-the-vote super-program, Project Orca. Everyone presumes that Team Obama isn’t as clueless about the web as was Romney’s outfit. The hubris of White House and congressional Democrats is another matter. Without their realizing it, their intransigence even to the proposed one-year delay in implementation represents a huge bet on this software package will work the first time or soon thereafter. Even the package’s developer (who has warned that using it could prove a “third-world experience”) seems to fear that it won’t.
Will this week prove a Greek tragedy? Stay tuned.