Frank Rich on the National Circus: Obama Won the Obamacare War, But the GOP Won’t Concede

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Hopefully not expecting a surrender Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: what Obamacare's success means for the president and the GOP, what the GM recall scandal says about American industry, and Republican presidential hopefuls court the dark lord of Vegas.

Six months ago, the Obamacare insurance exchanges began their official rollout with a government shutdown and a protracted website failure. Yesterday, the president announced that the Affordable Care Act's open-enrollment period had exceeded its goals, with at least 7.1 million Americans signing up. Obamacare has been the single most divisive issue in American politics since it was signed into law in March 2010. Is that period coming to an end? And has the president won? 

It will not stop being a political issue until the end of the midterms, of course, because the Republicans have no other issue to run on this year — and Obamacare-bashing, like Obama-bashing in general, revs up its base. And the GOP will do well in the midterms, too — not because of the Affordable Care Act, per se, but because the Republican base (white, male, old) turns up in off-year elections and much of the Democratic base (the new America that is inexorably supplanting the GOP base) hibernates until presidential election years. After the midterms, Obamacare will be vastly diminished as a political issue except on the hard right, which, after all, still doesn’t like that government “health-care takeover” called Medicare either. (The new Paul Ryan budget released this week, among its other indignities, calls for replacing Medicare with a voucher system that would destroy it.) Even now the ACA isn’t wildly unpopular — the country is split 49/48 in its favor according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll — and it will gain in popularity as it takes root among those Americans who needed it and now have it. In that important sense — as policy, not politics — the president may well have won, though we won’t know for sure for several years.

Meanwhile, it’s fascinating to see how those on the right are trying to deal with defeat by yet again trying to dispute hard statistics — claiming that the 7.1 million enrollment number is a fraud. (Actually, the real number is higher, maybe as high as 10 million in some estimates, because some who signed up for Obamacare did so directly through insurers, not through the often-troubled government exchanges.) Fox News even ran a graphic that used an outdated figure for enrollments, and visually portrayed the sign-up rate (in a bar chart) as about one-third of what it actually was. This is the same kind of magical thinking that made conservative pundits attack Nate Silver during the 2012 election and talk themselves into believing that Romney was going to win. We can only hope that Karl Rove will have another breakdown on television when he faces the reality that Obamacare has won over a significant segment of the electorate just as surely as Obama took Ohio on Election Night.

General Motors was one of the ringing success stories of post-crash American business, rebounding from the brink of collapse to become — with significant government assistance — a lean, profitable, and forward-looking company that capped it all off by hiring the industry's first female CEO. Now GM is in the midst of a growing scandal as evidence mounts that it ignored a dangerous, and sometimes deadly, ignition-switch defect on its cars for over a decade. What does this mean for the auto industry and American manufacturing in general? And what should Congress do about it?

It’s hard to imagine how this story could be worse. GM knew it had a defect that was making its products unsafe and killing people. There was clearly an internal cover-up. And at least some of this happened while taxpayers were bailing out the company, and GM’s bankruptcy status was providing it with legal protection from liability. I agree with the position that if corporations are people — as both the Supreme Court and the auto-industry scion Mitt Romney claim — then corporations should go to jail. Congress can’t do much in this case except hold this week’s hearings and dramatize the scale of the problem. Criminal investigations are needed along with the civil lawsuits and financial reparations already afoot. And Mary Barra has to stop this I-know-nothing routine. Her official video apology — “terrible things happened” — is a nausea-inducing example of egregious corporate “messaging.” She sounded like an airline executive on a fasten-your-seat-belt video, though in this case it was too late for the 13 dead Cobalt drivers to fasten their seat belts because, yes, terrible things did happen at GM, even if Barra says she’s clueless as to exactly what they were.

The fallout of this story extends beyond the auto industry and American manufacturing. It is consistent with what we’ve learned about other sectors since the crash of 2008: GM sold Cobalts as heedlessly as financial institutions sold toxic paper on Wall Street. And it did so while the government looked the other way or actively enabled the chicanery. It might be worth noting that the number of vehicles so far recalled by GM (6.3 million this year; 758,000 in 2013) almost matches the number of Obamacare enrollments announced by the president. In the grand ideological debate about whether business or government does better by the citizenry, it’s clear in this match-up that a government that sloppily and at times even haplessly brought insurance to some seven million Americans still did better by the public than a signature American corporation that sloppily brought to market some seven million cars that may have been death machines.

Last week, Republican presidential hopefuls Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Scott Walker, and Chris Christie courted the conservative mega-donor and international casino magnate Sheldon Adelson in Las Vegas. Adelson's money was one of the big stories of the 2012 election, although, of course, it didn't push either his preferred candidate, Newt Gingrich, or his fallback option, Mitt Romney, over the top. Does Adelson's support really matter? And could his billions resurrect even a scandal-tarred Chris Christie?

Let me ask my own question. Was this “beauty contest” of potential presidents — held in the dark heart of Vegas, sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition, and presided over by a gambling magnate who’s made much of his billions in Macau — worse for the Jews or the Republicans? That these Republican candidates think Adelson is an icon of American Jewry — and pander to his hard-line views about Israel in a sea of craps tables, slots, and prostitution — is insulting to Jews and gentiles alike. Sure, Adelson has a ton of dough to drop on whomever he decides to back in the Citizens United era, but I dare say the message of where that money comes from will not sit well with a lot of voters of all races, creeds, and religions. 

It didn’t help Christie that he screwed up even in this friendly setting, using the perfectly kosher term “occupied territories” in his love song to Israel and then cravenly apologizing to Adelson for offending his sensibilities. But each day furthers my conviction that Christie is done anyway: His use of $1 million-plus of taxpayers’ money for an in-house “investigation” exonerating him in Bridgegate had the opposite of its intended effect. It looks like a cover-up and has become an instant national joke. And the financial powers that be in the GOP Establishment know this. The real story in the Republican Party right now remains as it has been: the Establishment versus the radical base. The base is coalescing around a presidential front runner, Rand Paul, who, as the Washington Post reported last week, is now organizing in all 50 states. The Establishment (and no doubt Adelson) wants a white knight to knock Paul out — but they don’t have one. Giuliani, Romney, and Christie have all failed to reassert Establishment rule in the post-Bush GOP. So now (as the Post also reported) the Party’s top funders are in a desperate effort to enlist the Hamlet-like Jeb Bush for the task. By 2016, Bush will have been out of public office for nearly a decade. His political views are nebulous at best, and the fact that his fluency in Spanish will win back Hispanic voters to the anti-immigrant party is a pipe dream. But even if Bush says yes, he’s largely disliked by his own party’s base — let alone the downer the Bush name is for the public at large. It looks like 2016 is going to be another bloody chapter in the GOP’s ongoing civil war.