Obamacare Is Not a 'Train Wreck'

The problem with Republicans' metaphor of choice
Library of Congress

Republicans love to call Obamacare a train wreck.

"While Americans prepare for the holidays and one day after President Obama gave another speech trying to blame the ObamaCare train wreck on Republicans, his administration is delaying yet another portion of his signature healthcare law," Republican National Committee chairman Reince Preibus said Wednesday after health officials announced that the law's small business health insurance marketplace would delay online enrollment for a year.

"This is just an awful law that made no sense. I’m glad that the train wreck’s not mine, it's his,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said of Obama and the law on Tuesday in remarks on NJ 101.5. “It’s a train wreck that anyone who has managed anything ever in their lives could have seen coming.”

"Tried signing up for #ObamaCare today. How'd it go? Hint: #trainwreck," House Speaker John Boehner tweeted Thursday about the process that allowed him in one day to obtain insurance through DC Health Link, which has been glitchy.

Of course, calling Obamacare a train wreck is just using a metaphor. But it's a bad one. And bad metaphors are bad news, because they create distorting frameworks for thinking about important issues.

The main thing wrong with calling Obamacare a train wreck that it suggests the Affordable Care Act—an enormously complicated law that's been implemented piecemeal over a period of years and modified many times already—is instead a one-time unalterable event. And it's just not.

That's not how Republicans see the law, of course. They see it as both fixed and unfixable. According to CNN/ORC polling released Wednesday, the majority of Americans think the new health insurance law's problems will eventually be solved—but only 27 percent of Republicans hold that view.

Republican elected officials have seen the Affordable Care Act as essentially unfixable—that's why House Republicans voted 46 times to repeal or delay the implementation of the law, instead of working with the White House over the past three years to identify and solve problems within it of the sort that tend to accumulate in any such massive piece of legislation. As much blame as can be laid at the feet of the White House for not getting out in front of such forseeable problems as cancelled policies in the individual market, the same blame can be laid at the feet of congressional Republican opponents of the law who did not propose a specific fix for the issue long ago, preferring to instead to grandstand on the law as a whole.

But in hewing to the position that the law is unfixable, Republicans have instead made it harder to fix any problems embedded within it.

Perhaps a better train-related metaphor, should we need one, would be that the administration wound up in the embarrassing position of a person who was running late, made a frantic dash for a train, and then ran up to the gates just as entry was shuttered, forcing it to rejigger plans around the next available train.

The administration knew it was pushing it with its October 1 deadlines, and it knew it was working with a tight deadline. But instead of saying there's no way to make it, it effectively gambled on grabbing a cab and hoping for the best. Sometimes that kind of an approach actually works—you hit all the green lights, the cabbie knows the best route, there are no unexpected street repairs or parades tying up traffic. And sometimes it just doesn't, and what should have been 15-minute trip takes 40 minutes. Everything that can go wrong does.

That's partly what happened with the Heathcare.gov rollout. But missing a train is an entirely different order of problem from being caught in a wreck on the tracks. What happens when you miss a train is you apologize to whoever you had to meet with, reschedule, and then get on the next train.

That's what the administration is trying to do here.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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