(Re)assessing the Obamacare Rollout on Vast Majority Eve

I’ve been promising Chris for two weeks that I’d offer a response to his gloomy take on the underwhelming debut of the Affordable Care Act, and I would have done so sooner had nuclear weapons not been used on the floor of the U.S. Senate last week. But now that the mushroom cloud has cleared and I’ve shared some of my thoughts about why the latest escalation in the ever-worsening war of attrition over the filibuster may actually help to promote more effective (and more moderate!) governance over the long run, I can finally turn my attention back to the rolling debacle that is the launch of Obamacare.

Tomorrow marks what Ezra Klein has dubbed “Vast Majority Sunday,” the day by which the Obama Administration has promised that Healthcare.gov will be working smoothly for “the vast majority of users.” There are widely divergent views about what exactly that means, and it will be hard to gauge whether the emergency repair effort led by technocrat and long-time Obama ally Jeffrey Zients was actually a success (partly because keeping the definition of “success” ambiguous is the essence of the White House’s PR strategy at this point).

The lingering fiasco has Chris worried that Tea Party members of Congress will end up convincing themselves that last month’s strategy of shutting down the government in a last-ditch effort to defund the ACA was actually a good one. That Democrats are now the ones in a state of disarray and internal dissension – nearly twenty percent of the Democratic caucus in the House broke with leadership and President Obama to support a Republican bill that would grandfather insurance plans that don’t adhere to certain ACA regulations – shows how quickly the political winds can shift. After all, it was a mere six weeks ago that commentators were speculating about a gathering Democratic tsunami that would be powerful enough to flip control of the House next November.

While Chris professes no allegiance to vulnerable red-state Democrats per se, he is nonetheless frustrated that they might be beaten by opponents who favored last month’s kamikaze tactics:

I have no particular affinity for the Democrats whose seats will be contested in 2014, but from a political standpoint, it is maddening that the irresponsible behavior of the Tea Party might prove to be a rhetorical asset for their upcoming electoral prospects… The evidence they can provide to voters is increasingly damning if not effectively addressed immediately by the Obama administration: ongoing Healthcare.gov problems that probably won’t be fixed by December, anemic enrollment thus far, and the fact that 10 million Americans are losing their insurance despite Obama’s constant promises to the contrary.  It would be sickening to see the recklessness of Cruz and his scorched-earth colleagues rewarded with substantial 2014 gains because the President and HHS dropped the ball so spectacularly…

President Obama needed to ace his signature achievement’s implementation, not just for the benefit of the millions who stand to gain coverage from it, but for the immediate prospects of more moderate and practical governance.  The former will likely be attainable in the near future, but I fear the latter might have been lost for the near term.

Yikes. The prospects of more moderate and practical governance might have been lost for the near term. That sounds pretty ominous. Alas, it’s not exactly as if such prospects were already anything less than remote, but I see where he’s going with this. If Obamacare had had a highly successful inaugural October, we very well might have seen at least a small contingent of Republicans who, as Chris puts it, would have “accepted the reality of its implementation [and who] would work with Democrats to fine-tune the law and make it as cost-effective and fair as possible” (or at least have felt pressure to begin floating concrete alternatives). A glitch-free rollout would not have ended the Obamacare controversy, but it would have put Republicans on the defensive.

I think Chris’ pessimism about the possibility that the Ted Cruz faction will be rewarded for its intransigence is unwarranted. I’ll note that I believed this when I first read his piece in mid-November, and didn’t just change my mind in response to the stories now dribbling out about how the experience of using the online portal is much improved from the dark days of early October.

Chris himself admits, in the same sentence where he wrings his hands about the prospect of moderation and practicality slipping through our fingers, that the most glaring problems with the law will be ironed out sooner rather than later:

President Obama needed to ace his signature achievement’s implementation, not just for the benefit of the millions who stand to gain coverage from it, but for the immediate prospects of more moderate and practical governance.  The former will likely be attainable in the near future [my emphasis], but I fear the latter might have been lost for the near term.

I do not mean to argue that the law does not have structural flaws and/or that fixing the website will be a panacea for all of its present and future ailments. The employer mandate, for example, has the potential to create perverse incentives in hiring even if we have yet to see anything more than anecdotal reports of its harmful effects. Repealing that particular provision would be an important step toward severing the illogical and historically accidental link between insurance status and place of employment.

Nor do I think that the criticism of Obama for his now-infamous “if you like it, you can keep it” line is unfair. Any reform of anything requires tradeoffs, and Obama simply had to know that the structure of the ACA would lead to some disruption of existing arrangements. Mind you, I don’t think that these disruptions are necessarily bad, especially in light of the fact that those who “lose the coverage they like” are now guaranteed the opportunity to obtain new coverage through the exchanges (or at least, they will be once the exchanges are fully operational). But that does not excuse Obama for making the particular promise that he did. While the media and the Republican Party would have seized on a more weaselly alternative formulation – “What do you mean, most people can keep the coverage they like?” – the administration would not now be suffering the wrath of the fact-checkers if the president had made a more nuanced claim.

New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait recently made a helpful contribution to the taxonomy of “journalistic fallacies”: the tendency to believe that “whatever is happening at the moment will continue to happen forever.” (RM appreciates Chait’s singling-out of Politico as “a publication for whom the overmagnification of recent trends is its essential credo.”) The length of the news cycle may have shortened considerably with the advent of digital media, but many journalists, columnists, and political analysts seem not to have incorporated this new reality into their own process of discerning the longer-term impact of their subject matter.

This fallacy lurks beneath the surface of Chris’ concerns about a Tea Party renaissance next fall. A repeat of the 2010 “shellacking” very well could happen, and I don’t think anyone should prematurely write off seemingly unelectable Senate candidates like Paul Broun or Joe Miller. The defects of Obamacare could attain a lasting salience in the minds of voters that something like the IRS “scandal” did not. Yet the fact that the pendulum of public opinion has swung so dramatically in a mere six weeks should make us hesitate before we try to predict with too much confidence what will happen over the next seven or eight six-week periods. As Chait wryly explains,

Obamacare has existed for more than six weeks. This fact may shock those of you who are either fruit flies or dedicated Politico junkies, but it is true. The law does many things, and some of them occurred prior to October 1.… All sorts of things will happen to Obamacare in the next few months. At least some of those things will be bad, because any large enough enterprise, public or private, has bad things happen… But at some point, having state exchanges where people buy private insurance, with rules preventing abusive practices, will simply be part of the backdrop of health insurance.

In other words, based on what we know today neither party is likely to get a significant boost from this issue eleven months from now. Given the media hunger for reporting on shifts in “the narrative,” we can expect that stories about the uninsured successfully enrolling for coverage will at some point get the same level of attention devoted in recent weeks to policy cancellations, and that those stories will themselves disappear not long after that.

So are we farther away from an era of bipartisan comity than we would have been had the launch of Healthcare.gov not been a flop? Maybe. But keep in mind that we were pretty darn far away to begin with.

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