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Why The Shutdown Didn’t Change Anything

The shutdown drama gave Washington a lot to talk about, but it hasn’t really changed the dynamics of the debate.

Yes, the adopted Republican strategy — if we can plausibly call it that –- to delay and/or defund parts of Obamacare had little chance of success. So the story today is as expected: The House failed. The Senate’s RINOs caved. Polls are dropping. End of Days averted. Rinse and repeat.

But there are probably a few misconception about what it all means. For one, shutdown or no shutdown, we’d be in the same spot today.

There is a counterhistory, often spun by concerned liberal pundits and moderate Republicans, that goes something like this:  if Republicans had only allowed the disastrous Obamacare rollout to occur without redirecting all the media attention towards the hopeless shutdown, the party would have realized a huge victory rather than an ignominious defeat.

Let me offer my own counterhistory. Anyone who believes that the media was prepared to spend weeks taking a deep dive into the administration’s ineptitude, or even a shallow enough dive to alter Obamacare’s fortunes, hasn’t been paying attention. Remember what a big deal was made of the administration’s unilateral decision to delay the employer mandate? Me either. There were no distractions then, and it didn’t matter.

Nimble reporters had already framed the Affordable Care Act’s rollout fiasco as a mere glitchy snafu. So it’s more likely that we would have been subjected to a slew of uplifting stories about citizens who benefited from the life-changing power of exchanges — and who knows, some of these stories might even have been true.

If history is any guide, the media’s attention would have shifted from the administration’s technological troubles to highlighting the victimhood of would-be enrollees: “Why are Republicans celebrating the fact that people who desperately need insurance are struggling to access it? Why is the GOP ‘sabotaging’ the law of the land to harm poor people? And, look, most of those poor people are minorities! Oh, and did you see that confederate flag over there?”

But even Jon Stewart is criticizing the Obamacare rollout! Even liberals like the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein say that the “magnitude of this failure is stunning.”

Aiming fire at the incompetence of bureaucrats (and conservatives will, no doubt, argue that the DMVishness of the venture is not a bug but a feature of any government-run program) is not the same as having a problem with the legislation. As Klein noted:

A lot of liberals will be angry over this post. A lot of conservatives will be happy about it. But it’s important to see the Affordable Care Act as something more than a pawn in the political wars: It’s a real law that real people are desperately, nervously, urgently trying to access. And so far, the Obama administration has failed them.

Klein’s piece, while honest, isn’t a criticism of Obamacare policy. It is a criticism of execution. There’s a big difference.

And all of that only matters if the Obamacare roll out disaster is as politically significant as we’re led to believe. Because to me it seems like a customer-service issue, not an ideological or partisan one. In the end, how well Obamacare functions, how much it costs, how it works for the average American, will matter more than any shutdown or presidential speech. But that will take time to hit the average consumer. Let’s be honest, the frustrations of a fraction of Americans who are actively seeking to sign up for a price-fixed, taxpayer-subsidized insurance “market” aren’t going to change the political fortunes of this law.

Obamacare’s numbers actually ticked up a few points during the roll out. Still, its unpopularity has basically been static, and it’s doubtful that there will be enough residual anger from the shutdown to change that reality. According to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Obamacare’s popularity peaked in July of 2012, when it had 40 percent of the public believing it was a good idea; last week, in the middle of what we are supposed to believe was the Republicans’ worst hour, it was at 38 percent. Poll numbers have hardly fluctuated no matter how bad the news has been, and there has been plenty of it.

Finally, contra New York Times op-ed columns, the implosion of the Republican Party isn’t imminent, either.

Anyone who believes this shutdown will be a significant factor in the mid-terms (other than, perhaps, in primaries) is probably fooling themselves. By the time the 2014 rolls around we’ll have been subjected to around a dozen more bogus national crises. On the ground in D.C., the new stalemate looks just like the old stalemate. The agreement passed by Congress will fund government until January 15, the debt ceiling will be extended until February 7, sequestration levels will stay intact and a budget conference will be initiated to kick of fiscal negotiations later on. Boy, that sounds familiar. Obama is not going to be any more inclined to negotiate the next round. Neither will Tea Party Republicans. A situation that, no doubt, sounds familiar to most Americans. But mostly it probably sounds like noise.

Here, for instance, is what was trending on Yahoo! not longer after the Senate came to an agreement:


That looks about right. Because as mismanaged or misguided Republican efforts have been (and count me as one who believes they’ve been brutal), pundits are exaggerating the political cost of the fight. At some point, yes, something has to give. But right now, the dynamics of the debate are the same as they were two weeks ago, two months ago, and probably two years ago. Either reality, we end up right here.

Follow David Harsanyi on Twitter.

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