Was Obamacare the Big Election Issue?

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was a White House correspondent for Time, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and an editor at the New Republic.
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Earlier today Bloomberg View columnists Margaret Carlson and Ramesh Ponnuru met online to chat about the elections in Virginia, New Jersey and Alabama and the continuing mishaps of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Below is a lightly edited transcript.

Margaret: I want to be wild and crazy and definitive but I can't draw big meaning from last night. If it weren't for Virginia, there would have been nothing to stay up for and I love to stay up waiting for results. One thought: Obamacare has more staying power than the government shutdown. Ken Cuccinelli was such a bad candidate hobbled late in the Virginia gubernatorial race by Senator Ted Cruz's government shutdown. Cuccinelli should have lost badly against Terry McAuliffe, a so-so challenger, but for the increasing anger over Obamacare's rollout and insurance companies behaving badly (President Barack Obama will now be blamed for everything insurance companies do.) The shutdown will fade; Obamacare won't. Democrats could lose the Senate.

Ramesh: There are people who attribute Cuccinelli's defeat to the party establishment's not giving him enough money; on his hardline social conservatism; on his failure to defend that conservatism. And all of them are right. The shutdown hurt mainly because it kept him from getting his message out, and distracted attention from the Obamacare rollout. You're right about the bottom line: Obamacare is a longer-lasting issue than the shutdown was, and Democrats are in trouble on that issue. And they'll be in more trouble if they write off Chris Christie's landslide in New Jersey as a fluke.

Margaret: Is anyone writing off Christie? He's the opposite of Cuccinelli, not hardline in his conservatism, such as it is, and happy in his grumpy way. I doubt you'll ever find Christie taking plane rides and gifts from a businessman needing favors. And while he looks like an unmade bed, he's careful. That was CNN on at his election night party, not Fox. He also laid out how he's going to justify not serving by defining his time in office as a mission. When he completes his mission (the last skee-ball arcade is reopened, the final plank in the boardwalk is nailed down) he's done. Now we get to obsess over why and why not he won't be president. Do you think Rand Paul falls off the short list because of how he is handling the plagiarism charges? For less than Paul did, Joe Biden (a law school paper, a line from a Neil Kinnock speech) was knocked out of his presidential race in 1988. Paul is defiant and shifting blame to his staff. But they weren't around when other people's work appeared in his book. Paul kept saying "frankly" and "to tell you the truth" in his interview yesterday, always a sign of the opposite.

Ramesh: I do keep reading bloggers saying we shouldn't read too much into Christie's big win -- and they have a point: He won't win 51 percent of the Hispanic vote nationally if he's the Republican nominee -- but he still had a very impressive showing. The Paul plagiarism charge puzzles me a little bit: It's not as though we expect elected officials' words to be theirs. What was different about Biden's 1988 plagiarism was that he was cribbing autobiographical details from Kinnock that didn't apply to him. Which is just weird. I don't think this story is going to weigh heavily in the minds of actual voters.

Margaret: It's not the crime (though there was enough of a pattern that the conservative Washington Times canceled Paul's column), it's the reaction. It's not a good thing but this is what it's like in the Big Show. Paul's not in Kentucky any longer. Speaking of defiance, in Alabama, reading the tea leaves, no pun intended, the Tea Party got a trouncing. The moderate Republican businessman Bradley Byrne beat the un-moderate conservative Republican businessman Dean Young. While Byrne opened his victory speech by reaching out to Young, Young took the Rand Paul approach. He said he wouldn't support Byrne in the general and wasn't even going to call him to concede defeat. The Tea Partiers are thin-skinned.

Ramesh: Cuccinelli apparently has no plans to call McAuliffe, either, which seems like bad form. You may have seen Al Hunt's post: He doesn't think the Tea Party got trounced, because the margin was small and Byrne is well-known and well-funded. Not all Tea Partiers backed Young, and maybe the ones who did will learn something about candidate selection. The broader strain of skepticism about the federal government that the Tea Party represents is definitely not going anywhere -- except maybe up, thanks to Obamacare.

Margaret: The notes released by Representative Darrell Issa's Oversight Committee showing how chaotic the rollout was behind the scenes, how the person responsible decided not to tell Health and Human Services Secretary Secretary Kathleen Sebelius or the White House, and how they played whack-a-mole, fixing one bug and watching as another popped up, are enough to make me a skeptic. It didn't have to be this way. Why didn't the White House see to it that it wasn't?

Ramesh: The detail that still amazes me is the one the Wall Street Journal reported a few weeks ago: The White House apparently got a "demonstration" of the website that was mainly a set of screenshots. In addition to the administration's hubris, political and policy types display a general cluelessness about technology. What on earth is the administration going to do if it misses its (latest) Nov. 30 deadline?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the authors on this story:
Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net
Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net