Covered California

By DAVID NATHER | 10/18/13 5:22 PM EDT

Obamacare wins!

Now, let’s talk about that website.

President Barack Obama’s signature health care law is now turning into a 2014 election issue, rather than the disastrous defunding fight that led the government to close for three weeks. With the shutdown out of the way, the health care law’s problems will take center stage in a way that they didn’t while Republicans were stepping on their own message.

Obamacare was always going to be a major issue in the mid-term elections, since so many of its major pieces — the new health coverage, the online marketplaces where the coverage is available, the expansion of Medicaid, and the hated individual mandate — become real in January.

But now, Democrats will also have to talk about a federal health insurance website that barely anyone can use. Even White House spokesman Jay Carney was reduced to arguing Thursday that Obamacare isn’t just a website — after Obama has been saying it would be as easy as shopping for flat-screen TVs online.

That’s why, even though Republicans have been damaged in the short term by the Obamacare fight they picked, there’s no reason to believe the Obama administration and Democrats will have an easy time in the months ahead, according to health care analysts and political strategists from both parties.

Republicans, they say, can just let the spotlight return to the federal Obamacare website that breaks all the time — and any other implementation oopsies that happen along the way. That process is already underway, as House Republicans plan hearings on the website issues and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida warned that there will be a “revolt” over Obamacare in 2014.

“Getting the shutdown-debt limit debate behind us allows the problems with Obamacare to resurface. Those problems haven’t gone away,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who had warned GOP lawmakers that the shutdown would be a major distraction from those problems.

That doesn’t mean the debate will be unchanged, though. Republicans now have to get it through their heads that the law isn’t going away. As one Senate Republican aide put it Thursday, “We’re past that existential question.”

Democrats say they’ll always be able to remind Americans of the massively unpopular shutdown whenever Republicans try too hard to fight the law.

“Republicans thought that this was a winning issue for them and would trump public outcry over the budget and the debt ceiling … Republicans were dead wrong,” said Matt Canter of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “The shutdown showed that voters don’t want to continue refighting the partisan battles around the health care law.”

And top GOP strategists say the party has to try harder to rally around an alternative, which they haven’t been able to do so far.

Oh, and maybe don’t shut the government down again.

“The challenge for Republicans is to make this a policy fight, not a political fight,” said David Winston, a top Republican pollster who advises the House GOP leadership. “It’s incumbent upon Republicans to come up with an alternative. For most people, going back to where we were is not an option.”

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