All one has to do is think back over the developments of the past few months to begin to grasp the futility of making comfortable political predictions. Those in the business of doing so might as well take jobs predicting the course of the next hurricane or next month’s weather.
When Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas announced his decision to filibuster the continuing resolution that would keep the government open and running, establishment Republicans warned that he was courting political disaster and would endanger the GOP’s opportunity to gain control of the Senate next fall. They thought that he and they would be blamed for the shutdown, and Democrats, including the president himself, agreed, as did some of his fellow conservatives such as Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, who called it a “dumb” idea.
The polls seemed to support this argument. Republicans did get the bulk of the blame, and poll after poll showed GOP popularity plummeting. President Obama’s supporters could hardly hide their glee and began talking not just about holding the Senate, but retaking the House of Representatives and giving the Obama administration a chance to remake the world during the president’s final two years in office.
Then came the Obamacare rollout, and the political world changed again. As millions received cancellation notices from their insurance companies and virtually no one was able to log on and sign up for Obamacare, it began to seem that Mr. Cruz and the Republicans who had been warning that Obamacare would turn out to be a disaster were right. The president was forced to go before the American people and offer what for him was an apology for the incompetent way the rollout was handled and for misleading people by promising repeatedly that if they liked their pre-Obamacare health insurance plans, they could keep them.
Those close to the president and many of his supporters in Congress took some comfort in the belief that once the website is fixed and people begin to see the advantages of the new health care regime, all will be forgiven, their re-election will be guaranteed and a grateful populace will celebrate the genius of Obamacare and the president who dreamed it up.
Maybe, but not likely. Even the president’s closest advisers and supporters began warning last week that the administration can ill afford any more “glitches” if the president has any hope of recovering from a disastrous couple of weeks. Robert Gibbs, the president’s former press secretary, went further, suggesting that the administration needed to find a scapegoat or two, if not in the White House, then within the Department of Health and Human Services.
The scapegoat-in-chief would presumably be HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who actually seems closer to Mr. Obama than other Cabinet members and who he thus far has strongly supported. The administration’s ability to pin things on her and escape further blame by throwing her under the bus may not be any greater than its ability to fix the Obamacare website by the end of the month. After all, it was not Mrs. Sebelius who kept promising people they could keep their current health care plans if they liked them or assured Americans that under the Obama reforms they would pay less for their health care.
Moreover, recent poll data suggests that the president’s image may be suffering the same sort of damage that President George W. Bush sustained as a result of his administration’s perceived mishandling of Hurricane Katrina in the final years of his presidency. It is largely forgotten today, but while many Americans disagreed with Mr. Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq, his personal popularity remained high until the aftermath of Katrina, the embrace and then firing of his Federal Emergency Management Agency director, and his administration’s apparent inability to competently handle the relief effort.
Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies, a leading Republican polling firm, recently compared the deterioration of Mr. Bush’s support in the aftermath of Katrina with Mr. Obama’s numbers today and found them remarkably similar. In both cases, Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama were viewed as personally popular even though their job-approval support had deteriorated in the months before Katrina and the Obamacare rollout. After these events, though, both men saw their personal popularity plummet.
In Mr. Obama’s case, on the question of whether he could be regarded as honest and trustworthy, his net positive of 13 points in the early fall dropped to a minus-8 points by mid-November, and his rating on the question of whether he has the ability to manage the government went from a minus-5 to a minus-15 points.
Mr. McInturff argues that “once unleashed these negative sentiments are difficult to reverse and correct.” Mr. Bush couldn’t do it, and history suggests that Mr. Obama is going to have an equally difficult time.
So what does this portend for the 2014 elections? Mr. McInturff notes that as Mr. Bush’s numbers collapsed, so did popular voter support for Republican candidates on what pollsters like to call “the generic ballot.” Democrats enjoyed a 5-point advantage over Republicans before Katrina, but this number more than doubled to 11 points in the days after Mr. Bush’s personal approval collapsed. In the fall of 2006, Republicans lost 31 House seats and six Senate seats along with six gubernatorial races.
This year, the same thing is happening to the party in power. As recently as October, Democrats enjoyed a 9-point generic ballot advantage. Today, the parties are even and the giddy feeling of optimism that permeated Democratic ranks during the shutdown has turned to apprehension and, in some cases, to panic.
The political world can change quickly as it did with the Obamacare rollout, but unless it does, Democrats could be looking at a disastrous 2014.
David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.