Now that the partial government shutdown is over, the news is becoming more focused on problems with the launch of the Affordable Care Act. Writing in the New York Times, Ross Douthat offered this analogy:
Like the Bush administration in Iraq, the White House seems to have invaded the health insurance marketplace with woefully inadequate postinvasion planning, and let the occupation turn into a disaster of hack work and incompetence.
The analogy is clever on its own terms, but it may be pregnant with an even greater political significance that Douthat did not intend here. We are perhaps entering uncharted political waters. If Obamacare fails badly, then we will find ourselves in a situation in which both political parties will have discredited themselves badly in the space of ten short years: the Republicans by leading the country into the Iraq war, and the Democrats by leading the country down the path of government managed health care.
There is, admittedly, a big “if” here. The Affordable Care Act has not yet failed spectacularly, and perhaps it won’t. Nevertheless, one could make the argument that the Iraq war was not as spectacular a failure as the American left has insisted. But that argument, even if successful, would not change the fact that the Republicans suffered severe political damage as a result of the perception that the war was a failure. And that perception arose from the fact that the war was much harder than had been foreseen. So even if something good was accomplished by the Iraq war, it was accomplished at much greater cost than the people had been warned about, so that the people could reasonably chalk it up as a failure and punish those responsible accordingly.
Something very like this is possible for the Democrats. The Health Care Law may end up working well enough according to some standard. Indeed, it is certain that there will be some Americans who–because of partisan or ideological commitments–defend it as a success so long as they can point to any good that it has accomplished. But the same thing is true of the Iraq war, and that did not spare the Republicans their punishment. The ACA may work according to some standard or other, but it is almost certain not to work as the president promised it would. For he swore up and down for months upon end that it would control the costs of health care and that it would have no negative effect on the health insurance of the already-insured. But it now seems unlikely that it will turn out this way. The law will instead drive up costs for some people and cause insurers to cancel some policies, so that some people will be hurt by the law.
Again, if things play out in this way, we will find ourselves in a situation in which both parties will have discredited themselves with significant portions of the electorate in a relatively short period of time. Moreover, they will have done so in relation to issues that were once thought to be their strengths. People used to trust Republicans more on foreign and security policy, and they have traditionally trusted Democrats more on an issue like health care. That trust may be shattered for both parties.
If this is the case, it might create the possibility for new political combinations. Perhaps a credible third party could emerge, or perhaps one of the major parties will try to rebrand itself significantly in order to take advantage of the new situation.