President Obama, not surprisingly, devoted his weekly address over the weekend to problems with the Affordable Care Act’s website, and vowed, “[I]n the coming weeks, we are going to get it working as smoothly as it’s supposed to. We’ve got people working overtime, 24/7, to boost capacity and address these problems, every single day.” But as part of the same message, Obama added an even more pointed sentiment, directed at the law’s critics on the right.
“[It’s] interesting to see Republicans in Congress expressing so much concern that people are having trouble buying health insurance through the new website – especially considering they’ve spent the last few years so obsessed with denying those same people access to health insurance that they just shut down the government and threatened default over it.
“As I’ve said many times before, I’m willing to work with anyone, on any idea, who’s actually willing to make this law perform better. But it’s well past the time for folks to stop rooting for its failure. Because hardworking, middle-class families are rooting for its success.”
Accusing elected officials of “rooting for failure” has long been a provocative argument, and for good reason – American norms suggest policymakers aren’t supposed to actively, publicly hope that the nation’s fortunes take a turn for the worse. It’s one thing for officials to predict failure; it’s something else entirely when they hope for failure.
But these norms were apparently abandoned around January 2009. Literally the same day as Obama’s first inauguration, Rush Limbaugh declared, “I hope he fails…. I hope Obama fails. Somebody’s gotta say it.” Soon after, the sentiment was endorsed by Tom DeLay, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, and others.
It was jarring, even then, to see and hear prominent Republican voices, in the midst of an economic crisis and two wars, publicly declare their desire to see the president fail.
Though the circumstances are clearly different four years later, criticizing those who “root for failure” seems like a potent line of attack because it’s so deeply rooted in fact – Republicans haven’t made any real effort to hide their contempt for the federal health care law, and it seems unlikely any of them would even deny their hopes for failure.
And therein lies the political downside for Republicans in the short-term. Hoping to shake off the scandal of their government shutdown, GOP officials are heavily invested in focusing all of their attention on website problems, recognizing this as their first real opportunity to go on the offensive in months.
But when the question arises as to whether they’re “rooting for failure,” they lack a good answer – at least one they can confidently share with the public. The website doesn’t work, but they don’t want to help fix it. People are struggling to sign up for benefits, but they don’t want Americans to have those benefits anyway. Difficulties in the open-enrollment period put the system in an awkward position, but since they’ve spent three years trying to sabotage the system, Republicans don’t exactly have the high ground.
The larger takeaway, in other words, is that the American mainstream won’t be satisfied with online glitches, but GOP lawmakers may not be able to capitalize if the public sours on those rooting for failure.