The successful December 1 relaunch of Healthcare.gov has largely been good news for the administration of President Obama. While still far from flawless, the reworked website draws the political contrast between the president and his opponents much more sharply, pitting data on the law's success against anecdotes of its failures.
Over the weekend, the Obama administration was happy to report that Healthcare.gov's tech surge was successful. The website now works 90 percent of the time and can support up to 50,000 users at one time, with an error rate of less than 1 percent. Even before the relaunch, enrollments in November were up; Bloomberg reported on Monday that over 100,000 people enrolled through the federal exchange, four times 26,794 who enrolled in October, but still below the administration's goal.
That 1 percent error rate, however, still means that one out of every 100 people using the system will encounter a problem; the 90 percent up-time means that one hour out of every 10, the site may be problematic. For Republicans, that's all the evidence they need in order to launch political attacks.
The Republican strategy has long been based on anecdotal opposition, the individual stories of people negatively affected by the healthcare switchover. Starting with Sen. Ted Cruz's late-September sorta-filibuster, heavily reliant on tweets, Republicans have focused collecting incidents that cast Obamacare in a negative light — with which, of course, the faulty website eagerly complied. Last week, the House Republicans unveiled a political playbook which called for using anecdotes to critique the law. As The New York Times wrote, the plan "is to gather stories of people affected by the health care law … and use them to open a line of attack, keep it going until it enters the public discourse and forces a response, then quickly pivot to the next topic."
Healthcare.gov's myriad problems moved it to the forefront of critique of Obamacare at large. While complaints about policy cancellations — again, mostly anecdotal — prompted a response form the administration and allowed Republicans to critique the Affordable Care Act at large, the flaws of Healthcare.gov served as cultural shorthand for flaws in the bill itself. If the site is uniformly working better (for which we must largely take the administration's word, as NPR noted), it makes the argument against Obamacare weaker.
On Monday, the conservative social hub Twitchy.com combed Twitter for mentions of people complaining about the scheduled Healthcare.gov maintenance Sunday evening. As some users have noted, there are some other odd errors popping up:
CNN's New Day tested out Healthcare.gov on Sunday, and though they thought the site was working "a lot more smoothly," they still ran into an error message in the middle of the enrollment process.
Both of these incidents (anecdotes) will fit nicely with the Republican strategy, even as Republicans, like Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn, begin the process of separating understanding of Obamacare from the website. That task could be easier as the process moves forward. There are still questions about payment systems for the new Obamacare exchange policies and the looming question of "834"s — whether or not insurers actually got sign-ups from the early days of the site, meaning that some people may think they're covered when they aren't.
One thing seems increasingly clear: the era for Republicans voting to repeal the legislation is over. As Salon's Brian Beutler writes, "'repeal' has become a purely rhetorical posture."
In the months ahead the GOP will squeeze every drop of political juice they can out of every Obamacare failure and hardship they can unearth or spin into existence. But the goal won’t be repeal. It will be to channel the right’s Obamacare obsession into voter turnout in 2014 — at which point millions of people will be insured and the law will be unrepealable.
Repeal, always a dream, is now more of a political liability than anything. At this point, the anecdotal evidence of a fluky Obamacare is better for Republican politics than a push to end the law. For 2014 anti-Democratic-incumbent campaign ads, what could be more effective than softly-lit ads featuring empathetic people who lost insurance coverage?