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First Thoughts: Admitting there's a problem

President Barack Obama walks to the podium in the Rose Garden at the White House.
President Barack Obama walks to the podium in the Rose Garden at the White House.Pool / Getty Images, file

Admitting there’s a problem: Obama to speak at 11:25 am on the technical problems with the Obamacare website… But it also seems that the White House still doesn’t know exactly what the problem is… Sebelius under fire… For the GOP, what happens when the website gets fixed?... When “compromise” is a dirty word… Why the conservative campaign against McConnell is extraordinary… Conservative Richmond Times-Dispatch endorses “none of the above” in Virginia’s gubernatorial race… And how gay marriage now being legal in New Jersey could be a potential problem for Chris Christie.

*** Admitting there’s a problem: In this political and media age, we move from one crisis to another. Less than two months ago, it was Syria. Earlier this month, it was the government shutdown. And now it’s the technical issues associated with the Obamacare website. Today, President Obama himself is publicly admitting that they have a problem. In remarks on the health-care law from the White House at 11:25 am ET, the president will acknowledge the problems with the website and will discuss the efforts to fix it, per NBC’s Kristen Welker. He also will note the other ways uninsured Americans can apply for health-care coverage on the exchanges -- through call centers or paper application. But here’s why this problem is potentially more than just a glitch: The law doesn’t work if not enough people, especially healthy young adults, are signing up for coverage. The extra challenge for the White House is that they touted to reporters (both publicly and privately) how the website would work and that it would work as well as Apple, and now many of these same reporters feel burned or even lied to. And, of course, none of this should have been a surprise for Team Obama. It knew that Republicans were ready to pounce on any deficiency, real or imagined. Well, these problems are real.

President Barack Obama walks to the podium in the Rose Garden at the White House.
President Barack Obama walks to the podium in the Rose Garden at the White House.Pool / Getty Images, file

*** But still not knowing exactly what the problem is: The only question is how long it takes to fix the problem. Two weeks? Not a major long-term problem. Two months, that’s a political five-alarm fire. And this HHS blog post, which says it’s making improvements to the website, might suggest this isn’t a two-week fix. “Our team is bringing in some of the best and brightest from both inside and outside government to scrub in with the team and help improve” To us, that means while they’ve admitted they have a problem, they STILL don’t know what that problem is. We can picture how in the world of government bureaucracy and in this climate of fear of ever taking the blame personally, that these deficiencies could have been kept from the White House and even senior leaders at HHS. But that shouldn’t be the excuse. Somebody either failed to tell the truth to someone up the chain of command, or the White House and HHS knowingly misled reporters about the viability of this web site. The president earned some political capital after the shutdown but instead of using it for immigration or getting a better budget agreement, he may have to use it on health care.

*** Sebelius under fire: Given these problems, we found last week’s New York Times piece on HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius pretty stunning. In it, you had family members -- including the secretary’s older brother and sister -- defending her, rather than a chorus of administration officials. One argument from her sister: “The White House is smart enough to know that if she steps aside or they ask her to resign, they will never get anybody else confirmed.” But make no mistake, Sebelius is under fire, and she’s a bit on an island (note the defense of her in that Times piece was stronger from her family members than the White House). The good news for Sebelius is that more Republicans attack her, the more that stiffens the administration’s spine; the last thing this White House likes to do is bow to partisan political pressure. That said, if simply for no other reason than to get a second look from the public, someone needs to be held accountable for what is turning into a disastrous rollout. Fair or unfair, Sebelius is the face of Healthcare.Gov, and given her less than reassuring performance with Jon Stewart, she now has folks in the administration concerned about more than her P.R. skills, because somewhere between HHS, the White House and CMS, as Ezra Klein pointed out this morning on ‘Morning Joe,” there was a management breakdown.

*** For the GOP, what happens when the websites get fixed? While the political attention has started to move away from the GOP and its role in the government shutdown to the administration’s website woes, there is a potential problem for Republicans, too: What happens when the websites get fixed? What will be their argument then? After all, Republicans have now spent the last four years arguing against the health-care law -- first during the drafting stage, then at the Supreme Court, then at the 2012 ballot box, and most recently during the government shutdown. And they’ve lost every single time.

*** When “compromise” is a dirty word: Many political observers -- including us -- pointed to several reasons to explain the 16-day government shutdown. They included gerrymandering and geographical self-sorting, the GOP’s ideological civil war, the changing media landscape, and how the parties had become more homogenous after the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But political writer Jonathan Rauch emphasizes a much-less-discussed reason: a lack of compromise from the Tea Party. Writing in National Affairs, Rauch says that the Founding Fathers, particularly Madison, viewed compromise as a necessity and a virtue. “No one is saying, of course, that anyone should support anything only because it is a compromise, any more than that he should oppose something only because it is a compromise. The point, rather, is that compromise is a republican virtue. It endows the constitutional order with stability and dynamism. It not only tempers the worst in us; it often brings out the best. It is patriotic, not pathetic, and it deserves to be trumpeted as such.” And Rauch argues that if non-Tea Party Republicans want to win back control of their party, they must articulate a response about the need to compromise. After all, the real lesson from Ronald Reagan is that change occurred through incremental victories – with the help of a Democratic speaker.

*** Why the conservative campaign against McConnell is extraordinary: Speaking of the Tea Party’s battle against compromise, we have to underscore how significant it is that conservative groups -- like the Senate Conservatives Fund on Friday and the Madison Project earlier -- have endorsed Mitch McConnell’s GOP primary opponent, Matt Bevin. After conservative primary challenges to Robert Bennett, Richard Lugar, and even Thad Cochran last week, political observers might have become numb to these types of challenges. But we’re now talking about the GOP’s No.1 senator, McConnell, who after all famously (or infamously) said it was his and his party’s goal to make Obama a one-term president. Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine had groups like or the Progressive Change Campaign Committee went out of their way to challenge Tom Daschle in 2004 or Harry Reid in 2010. Of course, that didn’t happen. And that’s why the campaign against McConnell is extraordinary.

*** “None of the above”: Want another reason why Terry McAuliffe is winning -- and Ken Cuccinelli is losing -- Virginia’s gubernatorial race? Look no further than the usually conservative Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial page, which says it isn’t endorsing anyone for governor. (The paper backed Mitt Romney and George Allen in 2012.) “In the past, The Times-Dispatch has endorsed candidates with varying degrees of enthusiasm. We find it impossible to endorse any of the 2013 candidates with even minimal zeal.” And while the paper knocks McAuliffe plenty (calling his knowledge of the state government “laughable,” making Rick Perry “look like a Founding Father” by comparison), it saves its harshest words for Cuccinelli. “On social issues such as abortion and homosexual rights, Cuccinelli not only takes stands we find objectionable but pursues his divisive agenda with a stridency that was unbecoming in an attorney general and would be unbecoming in a governor.” Ouch. Oh, and the conservative Charlottesville Daily Progress endorsed … Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), who isn’t on the ballot! Double ouch. Again, these are right-leaning editorial boards.  

*** Gay marriage is legal in New Jersey, and how that could be a potential problem for Christie: Over in the other state that’s holding a gubernatorial contest next month -- New Jersey -- gay marriage became legal after the stroke of midnight. “At 12:01 this morning, dozens of gay couples were joined in matrimony as New Jersey became the 14th state to allow same-sex marriage,” the Newark Star Ledger writes. “From city hall in Newark to the boardwalk in Asbury Park, pairs of brides and grooms tied the knot in joyous ceremonies that celebrated love while mindful of their newly granted legal status.” Perhaps no elected politician outside of Washington has had a better last few months than New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R). His re-election in this blue state is looking like a slam dunk, and with all the political dysfunction in Washington only underscores how a DC outsider would likely have a leg up in 2016. But here’s the potential bad news for Christie: Don’t underestimate how gay marriage being legal in New Jersey could play in a GOP presidential primary. Yes, the American public is MORE receptive to gay marriage than it’s ever been, but that’s not necessarily true among GOP primary voters. The question is whether that opposition is active or passive.

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