Last week, Obamacare’s exchanges opened. Not that you’d know, given that they have remained inaccessible ever since. Almost as inaccessible as a decent excuse by which the GOP can escape the trap it has not only got itself caught in, but also devised, built and sprung, expecting it to catch everyone but them.

In fact, to some observers, this problem might seem doubly regrettable, given that the GOP arguably ought to be making hay out of the disaster that is Obamacare’s implementation, rather than wasting their time on a quixotic effort to deprive Americans of the sight of that particular regulatory train wreck.

Obamacare offloads the cost of providing insurance substantially below market price to older consumers by frontloading its costs onto the demonstrably underemployed and already financially squeezed millennial generation. In a sane world, its critics would ask, shouldn’t the GOP be hammering this point home in order to make young people see the light and abandon their Democratic betrayers? Especially given that millennials are already turning on the plan?

While such an approach would undoubtedly be light years better than the GOP’s current strategy in the shutdown (which can most charitably be characterized as “directionless”), I’m pessimistic about the strategy’s capacity to work, for a very simple reason: In order to make young people turn on the party they’ve previously supported, the GOP needs to have a better alternative on offer than what Democrats are proposing, and the credibility to have its alternative taken seriously.

For all intents and purposes, the party has neither.

Start with the lack of a better alternative. While anyone who watched Ted Cruz’s epic filibuster knows very well that the GOP has many good ideas about ways health-care reform could be fixed, ideas are not a plan. This is not to say that no plans exist that individual Republicans have proposed — Rep. Tom Price of Georgia has one particularly clever, and even elegant plan with a modest 32 cosponsors. Price’s plan also has absolutely no chance of passing the Democrat-controlled Senate, nor does it apparently have any high-profile champions in the Senate GOP, nor has it been marketed at all by the RNC. The problem is obvious: while individual Republicans have prototype plans, the party itself has not endorsed or marketed anything approaching a competing plan to Obamacare.

In other words, there are plans, but no one knows about them, Because perception is reality, the perception that the GOP has no alternative ideas equals out to reality. Given the understandable economic anxiety of young people, many of whom have yet to feel Obamacare’s sting because the law also allows them to remain on their parents’ plans, the idea of voting for a party that would take away even a temporary life raft, with absolutely no alternative, is understandably unacceptable to them.

But even if the GOP introduced a bill that would solve the problem of rising health care costs, and give every young person the opportunity to afford a dream insurance plan, and ran on it starting tomorrow, I don’t think it would make much of a difference. Why? Well, for the same reason that if I received an email from an actual Nigerian prince asking for my help to escape his country in return for millions of dollars, I’d delete it and consider it spam. That is, the GOP would not be trusted to make good on such an offer by most Americans generally, or by young people in particular.

The GOP currently stands at its lowest approval rating in the history of the Gallup poll. Granted, that’s only been since 1992, but the point still stands that today’s GOP is worse off than the GOP that shut down the government in 1995. And it’s not just Gallup that points this out. The congressional GOP’s approval rating is a dismal 22 percent, according to McClatchy. A Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 70 percent of Americans disapprove of the job GOP leaders in Congress are doing. These are not numbers that suggest a political party trusted to lead the country.

With young people, these alarming numbers turn critical. It is not just that the GOP is madly, impossibly out of touch with the next generation on social issues (which many of them consider so important as to be worth sacrificing their chance at a better economic future), though that cannot possibly help. It is not just that young people look at the most technophobic, reactionary elements of the party and see every unpleasant baby boomer who has either sneered at social networking, or snapped at them to stop texting at work, or complained about their entitlement for wanting a job that actually pays their bills and makes their education seem worth it, though this makes it worse.

Nevertheless, these flaws might be forgivable to voters in a party that had a record of undeniable success. But as far as young people are concerned, the GOP has everything but that. In fact, they believe the GOP is directly responsible for the economic woes that they currently suffer from.

Don’t take my word for it. Take the word of Kristen Soltis Anderson at the Winston Group, described by some as “the Republican Party’s leading millennial pollster.” Specifically, look at the report Anderson issued under the aegis of the College Republican National Committee (CRNC) earlier this year describing the problems Republicans face with young people. In fact, to be even more specific, look at page 32 of the report, where Anderson shows that 51 percent of young people blame the Great Recession on Republican economic policies, while 55 percent blame it on (wait for it) the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Republicans reading these results are likely to scoff that young people are misinformed dolts. This is precisely the wrong reaction. “You’re just too stupid to see how good we are for you” is a message that will never win any votes — just ask the Kerry campaign in 2004. Again, perception is reality, and the fact that more than half of young people already think Republicans are responsible for their economic problems is a massive credibility gap to make up.

Moreover, even if Obamacare (and indeed, Obama himself) has been a failure so far, this is not the panacea Republicans think it is at all. To quote Anderson’s report:

For those respondents who said they approved of the job Obama had been doing as president, the number one word they used? ‘Trying.’ He was trying. Young voters were disappointed in Obama’s performance, but gave him credit for attempting to improve the situation. In our focus groups, many respondents strongly defended President Obama even while acknowledging the mediocrity of the last four years.

And the Republicans? Young people simply don’t trust them. In fact, despite agreeing with the GOP that the Democrats’ strategy of raising taxes on small businesses is counterproductive, young people still trust Democrats more than Republicans to make it easier to start businesses and get jobs. Why? To quote Anderson again:

In our focus group of young aspiring entrepreneurs who voted for Obama, respondents noted that Republicans were the more “pro-business” party. Yet  when asked why they voted Democratic despite their desire to start a business  themselves, the responses were clear: “I don’t think [the Republicans] would  make it easier for small businesses.” “A corporation, maybe, absolutely. A small business?” “The Republican Party would make it really easy to start a business and have a successful business if you already have that capital in your bank account, because you’re not losing that money. But we’re all sitting on our own  various debts and our student loans, and the Republican Party isn’t helping us with any of that.”

Put this together, and you get a bleak picture: Young people believe that while President Obama’s policies (Obamacare included) might be mediocre or even damaging to the country, they give the president credit for trying to make things better. Essentially, for having the right motives. Whereas they believe that Republicans already passed counterproductive economic policies that ended up causing the recession that has cost many of them the careers they were raised to expect, and that Republicans will shaft them in favor of large companies and the already rich the first chance they get. Just because Obamacare is a massive poison pill doesn’t mean this perception will go away.

As to what should be done? I could chronicle steps, but really, the first one is that the GOP will have to find some way to swallow its pride and reopen the government, even if the Democrats’ childishness makes that impossible to do without some policy pain. Whatever the objective merits of the shutdown, and wherever the blame actually falls, the polls are clear evidence that Republicans have lost, and will continue to lose, the shutdown messaging battle, probably for the foreseeable future. In fact, we should get used to losing messaging battles for as long as we rely solely on alternative media that no one but the party faithful reads/watches, and make no effort to adapt to a media landscape that is hostile, and operate successfully within it.

In short, yes, Obamacare is terrible. Yes, the Democrats are behaving like children. Yes, the press is still irrevocably against conservatives. Yes, young people still fear and mistrust us. These facts may be outrageous, but moral outrage is not a substitute for victory. Conservatives can either whither in their own outrage as their approval ratings spiral into oblivion, or they can survive to fight another day, and perhaps one day thrive, once they have gained the opportunity to prove the fears of future voters wrong.

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