Did you know that Obamacare faltering rollout is why "liberalism" as an American political philosophy is at risk? According to some commentators, it is — because its failure would mean that Americans lose faith in government. Except that this is premature, over-simplified, dependent on questionable "experts," and wrong, it's an excellent point.
The National Review's Jonah Goldberg gleefully celebrated his schadenfreude at Obamacare's stumbles: "If you can’t take some joy, some modicum of relief and mirth, in the unprecedentedly spectacular beclowning of the president, his administration, its enablers, and, to no small degree, liberalism itself, then you need to ask yourself why you're following politics in the first place." On Monday, Politico's Todd Purdum reached the same conclusion on liberal politics via a less emotional road:
[T]he fiasco of the launch of Obama’s sweeping health care overhaul has put the reputation of Big Government progressivism at risk for at least this generation. And its future now rests on the president’s ability to reverse that debacle and to demonstrate that his approach to covering millions of uninsured Americans is not only an enlightened — but workable — policy.
"Big Government progressivism" has its reputation riding on the Affordable Care Act, apparently. But Obamacare is neither very big government nor terribly progressive. As we all know by heart at this point, Obamacare is a derivation of a policy promoted by the conservative Heritage Foundation, a free-market solution to the problem of health care costs and many people's lack of insurance. In a September poll, one-tenth of respondents opposed the Affordable Care Act because it's not progressive enough — instead of a single-payer (that is, government-run) system, it's a kludge cobbled together to win political support.
One key part of the Affordable Care Act was to expand the existing Medicaid program to cover more low-income people. That expansion has been a "huge success" in the words of The Washington Post's Ezra Klein, in part because people who were already eligible for Medicaid are now signing up. In states where coverage has been expanded, the result has been massive, with nearly half a million people enrolled as of last week. That's the "big government" part of Obamacare — and it's working great.
The states that aren't expanding Medicaid overlap heavily with the states that never bothered to set up their own insurance exchanges. The Affordable Care Act was deliberate in giving states power to put the law into effect — again, not because lawmakers were trying to appeal to progressives — but that left key components of implementation in the hands of hostile legislators. Healthcare.gov should work, but if states had set up their own exchanges as the law demands, state sign-ups on their own websites might have offered very different results.
The governors of Washington, Kentucky, and Connecticut wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post on Monday, arguing that their immersion in making Obamacare work has been a success. Their websites work, meaning that they aren't dependent on Healthcare.gov — but they're also focused on the sort of organizing and education that would get people covered. "[O]ur political and community leaders grasped the importance of expanding health-care coverage," they write, "and have avoided the temptation to use health-care reform as a political football."
Americans are very familiar with that football game. While the stumbling roll-out of Obamacare has caused poll numbers on the policy to drop, Republicans are still scrambling to recover from the unpopularity that stemmed from the October shutdown. As it did last month, the GOP has directly and deliberately tied its fortune to predicting and assisting the failure of Obamacare — giving worried liberals a prominent target at which to point fingers.
While Goldberg's argument is simply adrenaline-soaked rhetoric, Purdum doesn't rely solely on the one argument above to make his case. He also talked to experts: fervent and long-standing centrist David Gergen, conservative Charles Krauthammer, "conservative theorist" Yuval Levin, and historian Geoffrey Kabaservice. Do you see a trend? Oh, there's also Brookings' William Galston, who, as MSNBC's Adam Serwer reminds us, was once declared "America's Wrongest Columnist." Purdum is trying to make a point and that's fine. But this is not a line-up largely sympathetic to liberal politics. It's on the borderline of concern-trolling.
None of these, however, are the strongest points arguing against this idea. The first is this: America is already skeptical of government involvement. This is almost certainly one of the reasons that Obamacare is a private-sector, state-based Frankenstein; the newly-elected president knew Congress and Americans wouldn't go for a nationalized system. Below is Pew Research's graph of trust in government until mid-October. It's been on the decline ever since the aftermath of September 11, but is also cyclical. Things could get worse — and have — but only for a brief period of time since the early 1990s were more than a third of Americans happy with how the government was doing its job.
There are a lot of reasons for this skepticism. The post-9/11 downward trend seems to sync in part with the invasion in Iraq. The Tea Party and far-right conservatives have been adamant on an anti-government message since 2009. And failures in other parts of the government (like this story about waste in the military) also don't help. The nuances of the success of Medicaid may be lost on voters, but if Obamacare is going to completely dismantle faith in the government, it seems to only need to pull an already-loose thread. Regardless of overall opinion, there are elements of government that Americans consistently and overwhelmingly want to maintain — like Social Security and Medicare.
But here's the main reason that conservatives' however-sincere hand-wringing is silly: It has been seven weeks. Seven weeks ago, Healthcare.gov launched, to lousy reviews. Fewer than two months. The insurance policies that people have purchased on Obamacare's exchanges don't kick in until January. Yes, there's a risk involved in policy cancellations and slow sign-up rates for young people, but there is also time to address both of those things. Concerns over Obamacare are warranted, but they are also fomented by people like Charles Krauthammer and Congressional Republicans for political reasons.
What conservatives are doing is walking out of Gravity after the first 10 minutes and declaring it not only to be a horrible movie, but also the likely cause of Americans never going to see movies about space again. It could turn out that Obamacare is more like Plan Nine From Outer Space, but liberals might want to stick around until the closing credits before registering as Republicans.