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Shutdown over, incompetence not

It’s been a bad few weeks for America. Between a meaningless government shutdown and a disastrous start of the Obamacare health exchanges, the government confirmed our worst fears about partisanship and incompetence.

Hardline conservatives led the Republican Party on a suicide mission to shut down the government and threaten not to raise America’s debt limit in order to defund Obamacare. From the beginning, the fight was unwinnable for Republicans. The last government shutdown ended with a resounding win for President Clinton, even though polling beforehand showed that most Americans supported the Republicans’ position.

This time, every poll about the shutdown showed that Americans would blame Republicans and sympathize with President Obama. But Republicans channeled their inner Don Quixote and fought Obama anyway. Their only reward for this suicidal bravery was the lowest approval rating ever recorded in the history of the Gallup Poll.

While Republicans were busy making themselves look too dangerous to govern, the rollout of the Obamacare health exchanges was showing the problems with liberal government. Although 3.72 million Americans tried to shop on the exchanges, only 36,000 ended up with insurance. So few Americans purchased insurance because exchanges are riddled with computer crashing glitches and are virtually impossible to use. Phil Galewitz, a reporter for the Kaiser Family Foundation, tried to buy insurance 63 times and each time was kicked off the website by one error or another.

This bad start doesn’t mean the exchanges will continue to fail. Medicare Part D, a health care program started by President Bush in 2003, had many problems when it launched, but ended up being both cheaper and more popular than expected. A few state exchanges are working and can be copied at the federal level. The real test for the exchanges will be in a few months. If they work then, the initial problems won’t matter; but if they still don’t function well, Obamacare will be dead on arrival. The exchanges are how Obamacare planned to expand health insurance coverage, and expanding coverage is essential to lowering average health care costs.

Regardless of whether the exchanges will eventually work, their initial failure is evidence in favor of conservatism’s basic premise – that government programs usually do not live up to expectations and government bureaucracies are worse at completing tasks, like designing insurance websites, than private businesses. The basic idea behind Obamacare is that more government involvement in health care will make it cheaper and more accessible. Designing a working website is the easiest task the government has in launching Obamacare. If they can’t do that right, how will they deal with the hard stuff, like getting enough healthy people to buy insurance and preventing people from lying about their income in order to receive more generous subsidies?

Republicans should have had a golden opportunity when the exchanges didn’t work. Obamacare is already unpopular with the average American, and the story of bad website design is simple enough to make an excellent political sound bite. Republican political candidates should have seen their poll numbers rise these last two weeks as they attacked Democratic incumbents for supporting a healthcare law that couldn’t even get its website right. Instead, Republicans were defending themselves for shutting down the government and threatening to default America on its debts.

The shutdown and Obamacare launch are a microcosm of American politics in the last few years. The Republican Party is controlled by its most extreme members and launches into battles that few Americans want to fight. The Democratic Party appears sane and reasonable by contrast, but their approach to government isn’t working. These problems will not go away anytime soon, and in the meantime, all reasonable Americans can do is shake their heads and hope for better days.