The bungled rollout of the Affordable Care Act is one of the worst political disasters of my lifetime. It may mean that Obamacare is doomed. Under a parliamentary system, it might mean that the administration of President Obama would fall in a "no confidence" vote. Before this mess ends, you can expect to hear relatively serious calls for President Obama's impeachment. The colossal failure of Obamacare so far is a setback for the national government that will leave a toxic trail of political fallout on the United States for decades to come, long after Barack Obama has slipped away into his post-presidential career.
The debacle jeopardizes one of the progressive movement's most cherished goals—universal, affordable health care for every American citizen—a dream that goes back at least as far as Republican Theodore Roosevelt. It also jeopardizes the progressive movement more generally, at a time when America is falling behind in the world arena precisely because it has failed to address a range of serious challenges with all the tools that a modern society needs to thrive.
Just when we thought the national crisis of political hatred and unalloyed partisanship could not possibly get worse, the Obama administration has thrown kerosene on the anti-government fire, and given the fading Tea Party movement a new lease on life. It has permitted everyone who predicted that Obama would be a failed President to say (prematurely), "I told you so."
In the month since Obamacare began to come into effect, two fundamental problems have emerged, and more are sure to come. The problems are (1) the immediate and continuing failure of the $300 million website Healthcare.gov, and (2) the fact that the workings of the new system have made Obama's endlessly repeated pledge—"if you like your current health care plan you can keep it"—seem like a filthy lie to the American people. The news that three San Francisco-based knuckleheads with no ties to the U.S. government were able to create a brilliant and efficient Obamacare support site (Help Sherpa) virtually overnight takes us into the arena of pure absurdity.
If the Affordable Care Act was ever going to win widespread affection and convince the skeptical American people that the time has come for a national health care system in the United States, it had to work. It had to exceed expectations from the moment it came out of the gate. It had to be a model of government efficiency. It had to look like something a twenty-first century internet savvy President would do. It had to create a national buzz of renewed optimism: the federal government is back after 30 years on the political robes. Instead, it has been a greater disaster than even its most vicious detractors could have dreamed. Listen to Rush and Sean: how they do crow in pure joy about the failure of an initiative designed by well-meaning people to address one of the principal problems of American life: the failure of the existing health care system to provide portability, absorb people with pre-existing conditions, and provide minimal positive health care to the 30-50 million people who have, until now, been subjected to our heartless "emergency room health care option."
The Affordable Care Act was to be Obama's signature accomplishment as President and it was to be the basis of his historical legacy. That and killing Osama bin Laden. Every American has a right to ask: if this is your signature achievement, and you had years to develop this website at virtually infinite public expense, why would you release it when virtually any serious beta testing would have shown you that it doesn't work? If Obama cannot fix this thing ASAP, and apologize in a completely unguarded way to the American people, he is headed into the gulag of Jimmy Carter, whose administration will forever be symbolized by the failed raid (Operation Eagle Claw!) on Tehran on April 24, 1980.
Now everyone who has hated Obama since before he was even inaugurated (I know scores of such people in my little circle alone), everyone who hates rule by Democrats, everyone who hates Obama's style, his perspective on world affairs, his outsized political confidence, everyone who hates "the liberal agenda," will feel vindicated and empowered. Such folks will be even more strident and obnoxious in the future, and "the failure of Obamacare" will be their rallying cry, like the Alamo or the Boston Tea Party or the sinking of the battleship Maine.
Since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the central mantra of political conservatism has been "government always screws things up." In his first inaugural address, delivered on January 20, 1981, President Reagan famously said, "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." Think of the paradox of this! The new President of the United States, the elected head of the American government, begins his eight-year tenure by denouncing government. Every President since Reagan has had to operate under the shadow of Reagan's cynicism—the paradoxical view that government is a disaster except when it is funding and operating the largest military behemoth the world has ever seen. At one of the lowest ebbs of his presidency, Bill Clinton was heard to say—a little pathetically—"government still matters."
I remember hearing former Speak of the House Newt Gingrich, at the height of his intellectual and political power, deliver a lecture at an Inns of Court event. His theme was the inefficiency of government. Why, he asked, is it a hassle to mail a parcel in a U.S. Post Office, and so easy to send a package by Fedex or UPS? Why should a visit to a state's Department of Transportation to renew a driver's license or register a new car be a daylong nightmare? Why does private enterprise provide quick, efficient, reliable, and friendly service to its customers, while public services are typically slow and inefficient, and your transaction is usually handled by a rude, unsmiling, and bored functionary whose salary you are paying.
There is an answer to the Gingrich thesis, but in the last month I have wondered many times why Obama didn't just ask Amazon.com to administer the health care program. After all you can buy books and refrigerators at Amazon.com, DVDs and snow tires. Indeed Google, Oracle, and other internet masters have offered to help fix the broken Healthcare.gov system. I say, turn them loose.
In the end, I predict, the problems with the Affordable Care Act will be fixed, and that some future version of it (Post-Obamacare 3.0) will come to be seen as a central and cherished benefit of American life, like Social Security and Medicare. In the meantime, I believe that Kathleen Sebelius should resign (on the principal of parliamentary accountability), that President Obama should shake up his administration at every level, that he should reach out in an unprecedented way to the Republicans to devise some kind of health care compromise that fulfills his promise that "if you like your health care plan you can keep it," and he should deliver a nationally-televised address to the American people in which he acknowledges this catastrophe and never utters one defensive statement.
Even so, for decades to come, whenever a new government initiative, bureau, or program is announced, we can expect to hear—in the blogosphere and talk radio land—"Oh, yeah, remember the rollout of Obamacare?"
This is not just a setback for Obama and the Democrats. It is a setback for America.