WASHINGTON — For the Republicans who despise President Obama’s health-care law, the past few weeks should have been a singular moment to turn its botched rollout into an argument against it.
Instead, in a futile campaign to strip the law of federal money, the party focused scrutiny on its own divisions, hurt its national standing and undermined its ability to win concessions from Democrats. Then they surrendered almost unconditionally.
“If you look back in time and evaluate the last couple of weeks, it should be titled ‘The Time of Great Lost Opportunity,’” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, among the many Republicans who argued that support for the health-care law would collapse once the public saw how disastrous it was.
“It has been the best two weeks for the Democratic Party in recent times, because they were out of the spotlight and didn’t have to showcase their ideas,” Graham added.
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Now, near the end of a governing crisis that crippled Washington and dismayed a nation already deeply cynical about its political leaders, Republicans are struggling to answer even the most basic questions about the cause and effect of what has transpired over the past few weeks.
They disagree over how, or even whether, they might grow from the experience. Many could not comprehend how they had failed to prevent such avoidable, self-inflicted wounds.
Others could not explain why it took so much damage, to their party and the millions of people inconvenienced, and worse, by the showdown to end up right where so many of them expected.
“Someone would have to explain that to me,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “I knew how it was going to end.”
“I’m trying to forget it,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, still in disbelief that many of her fellow Republicans could not grasp that this was a losing battle. “Here we are. Here we are. We predicted it. Nobody wanted it to be this way.”
All the while, Republicans had the public on their side on the other issues that they could have litigated in the court of public opinion, such as the need to get control of the nation’s long-term debt. And although they started the process last month with major advantages — a president on the defensive over an unsteady response to the war in Syria and an agreement by Democrats to keep financing the government at levels that many liberals felt were far too low — their fixation on the health-care law prevented them from using their leverage.
“We managed to divide ourselves on something we were unified on, over a goal that wasn’t achievable,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. “The president probably had the worst August and early September any president could have had. And we managed to change the topic.”
The question so crucial to the Republican Party’s viability now, heading into the 2014 congressional elections and beyond, is whether it has been so stung by the fallout that the conservatives who insisted on leading this fight will shy away from doing so again when the government financing runs out and the debt limit again needs to be raised.
It is not an abstract question. The deal reached Wednesday would finance the government only through Jan. 15 and lift the debt ceiling through Feb. 7. Some top Republicans suggest that this confrontation, one some of the most conservative tea-party-aligned Republicans have been itching for since they arrived, ended so badly for them that it would curb the appetite for another in just a few short months.
Many Republicans are calling for a refocusing of priorities, saying the party must turn to bigger issues such as revising the unwieldy and unpopular tax code and reducing the long-term deficit. As for the health law, some believe there is a more winnable fight to be had with tough congressional scrutiny of its rollout over the next year.
“Now we’re going to shift to oversight of the health-care law, and clearly there are huge problems,” said Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., who leads the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. “Now we’re going to have to pursue what is this law really doing for Americans. Is it working and is it delivering?”
In the Senate, there were already signs that an emergent group of 14 centrist senators from both parties was looking to make an impact on the fiscal battles ahead. The group, led by Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., has already planned to meet in the coming weeks.
McCain, also a member, said Wednesday: “We are not going to let this kind of partisanship cripple this body and injure the American people.”
Speaker John Boehner’s strategy always involved a gamble that his members would come away from this clash chastened. He intentionally allowed his most conservative members to sit in the driver’s seat as they tried in vain to get the Senate to accept one failed measure after another: first to defund the health-care law, then to delay it, then to chip away at it. His hope was that they would realize the fight was not worth having again.
The worry among many Republicans is that the tea-party flank will not get the message, mainly because their gerrymandered districts are so conservative that they do not have to listen.
Some fear that history is repeating itself. After Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat, in which the Republicans lost the popular presidential vote for the fifth time in six elections, the party tried to regroup and its establishment warned that it had to stop being so shrill, so exclusionary and so narrowly focused on issues that alienate large chunks of voters.
The budget fight showed that congressional Republicans have divergent ideas about how to heed that advice.
On Wednesday, Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., offered his party advice for what it should do about the health-care law come January and February.
“The natural inclination is to say, ‘No it’ll be exactly the same,’ ” he said. “But if we can figure out a way to drive that message home that this is about fairness, this is about principle, then the outcome may well be different.”