Republicans Walked Into Obama's Trap

His goal was to discredit the GOP before 2014. The defunders fell for it.

There's plenty of blame to go around for the chaos in Washington, but at the top of the list is the absence of presidential leadership. When Congress is close to agreement but still divided, the country rightly counts on its chief executive to bridge the gaps, make the compromises, and smooth the way to passage.

Instead, President Obama deliberately withdrew from negotiations over the debt ceiling and government shutdown. According to a Bloomberg report on Wednesday, the White House was concerned his personal involvement would be "a mistake that damaged the president's ability to advance his agenda."

Perhaps it was for the best. Mr. Obama's skill is not in bringing Americans together; it is turning them against one another. This latest crisis over the debt ceiling and shutdown is a case in point. Having voted against an increase in the debt ceiling in 2006 as the junior senator from Illinois, the president now characterizes those opposed to one today as reckless and crazed. Hypocrisy makes for clever politics but bad governing.

Give Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid his due. He combined ruthless partisanship with exceptional message discipline. On Tuesday, Mr. Reid attacked House Speaker John Boehner for considering a measure that "can't pass the Senate." He also blames Mr. Boehner for not taking up bills the Speaker didn't believe could pass the House. So Mr. Boehner is responsible whenever bills cannot pass either chamber, including the one Mr. Reid presides over.

This all fits into the White House's desire to use the continuing resolution and debt-ceiling fights to punish the GOP House majority in order to flip the House in the 2014 midterm election. That's a long shot, but the Obama-Reid-Pelosi cause was helped by a minority of House Republicans who persisted in a failed tactic.

The House could vote to defund ObamaCare as part of the continuing resolution and did. But the Democratic Party-controlled Senate would never approve such a measure. Even after the defund tactic was shown to be a transparent failure, its fundamental tenet—that ObamaCare can be undone by a party that controls only the House—has continued guiding a group of 20 to 30 House Republicans whose support is necessary to pass any GOP bill.

Backers of the defund strategy never offered a plausible way forward after their approach failed. Instead, they alienated colleagues who disagreed by insisting they were closet ObamaCare supporters and the defunders' outside allies raised the threat of primary challenges. They became content to sit in judgment of plans offered by the House leadership, turning thumbs down on anything not in conformity with their now discredited tactic.

The way to undo ObamaCare is to patiently and deliberately pull at its threads with measures that will gain Democratic votes—or at a minimum highlight Democratic opposition to changes that Americans support. One such change—delaying the imposition of the individual mandate—is favored by 60% of Americans, according to the Sept. 8 Reason-Rupe poll. Republicans should use the oversight process in Congress to stress ObamaCare's failures and inherent unworkability. They should also offer proposals to protect and strengthen private insurance.

Some of the GOP's alternatives are unlikely to pass the Senate. So be it. Republicans can still use the opposition of the president and Democrats to win Senate seats in 2014 and the White House in 2016. Both are necessary for ObamaCare's repeal.

What is most frustrating about the GOP's mishandling of the government shutdown is the opportunity cost. Consider where things might be if a minority of House Republicans had not stayed wedded to the defund tactic once its authors admitted they couldn't get it through the Senate.

The House would have passed a continuing resolution that funded the government at the lower levels agreed to in the 2011 Budget Act, probably with some ObamaCare fixes. These could have included making Members of Congress live under the law; requiring income verification before providing an insurance subsidy; and repealing or delaying some of the health law's obnoxious taxes. There was even an outside chance of delaying the individual mandate.

When Republicans didn't change course, they lost their leverage, and Americans were left watching the shutdown and debt-ceiling fights instead of the debacle that was the rollout of ObamaCare.

Barack Obama set the trap. Some congressional Republicans walked into it. As a result, the president is stronger, the GOP is weaker, and ObamaCare is marginally more popular. The battles over spending, taxes and debt have not been resolved, only postponed. It's time Republicans remembered that bad tactics produce bad outcomes.

A version of this article appeared October 17, 2013, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Republicans Walked Into Obama's Trap and online at WSJ.com.