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Is Obamacare the End of Liberalism? Not So Much

Pundits—evoking Chicken Little—treated the glitches in the health care website as a historic catastrophe. They look more than a little silly now.

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An error message is displayed on the healthcare.gov website. The beleaguered health insurance website has had periods of downtime as as the government tries to fix the problems. (AP/Jon Elswick)
An error message is displayed on the healthcare.gov website. The beleaguered health insurance website has had periods of downtime as as the government tries to fix the problems. (AP/Jon Elswick)

The other day, officials in the Obama administration reported that they had fixed the software bug that apparently caused many of the problems on healthcare.gov. They say that it now works for shoppers 90 percent of the time when handling 50,000 simultaneous users—hardly perfect, though certainly an improvement after its disastrous launch.

We ought not to be surprised at these initial failures. As I reported back in March 2012, “Many people inside the administration find even the current schedule [of the bill’s implementation] impressively optimistic.” As Thomas B. Edsall notes in The New York Times:

This system requires coordination of over 288 policy options (an average of eight insurers are competing for business in 36 states), each with three or more levels of coverage, while simultaneously calculating beneficiary income, tax credit eligibility, subsidy levels, deductibles, not to mention protecting applicant privacy, insuring web security and managing a host of other data points.

More and more, however, things are falling into place. As Jonathan Bernstein notes, health care is re-emerging as a “normal issue.” And according to The New York Times, over the next few years, “the government is expected to spend billions of dollars less than originally projected on the law.” Furthermore, the Center for American Progress calculated that an average individual premium for a plan with relatively high out-of-pocket expenses in the insurance marketplaces is $3,900, about 16 percent lower than the $4,700 expected. According to Jonathan Cohn in the New Republic:

The best available projections suggest that 13 million people will eventually sign up for Medicaid. … [But] Republicans governors and lawmakers are blocking expansion of Medicaid in their states. About 5 million people who would be eligible for Medicaid under Obamacare’s new guidelines won’t be getting it.

And yet this story—the one about possibly intermittent but steady progress toward the goal of giving all Americans access to health care—will not likely be the one driving the narrative in the mainstream media. Remember when John Boehner promised that the bill would “ruin our economy,” and Rick Santorum similarly predicting that it would “destroy the country?” Well, a few weeks ago, when the website was originally released and failed to function properly, New York Times pundit Joe Nocera likened its problems to “Obama’s Bay of Pigs,” the lowest point of John F. Kennedy’s presidency. According to Ron Fournier, the rollout was both Obama’s Katrina and Iraq.

Think, for a moment, about how many people died in those incidents. Perhaps most optimistic—at least from a right-winger’s standpoint—was Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, who explained that the stakes of the flawed rollout were “more than the fate of one presidency or of the current Democratic majority in the Senate.” Rather, it “is the new, more ambitious, social-democratic brand of American liberalism introduced by Obama, of which Obamacare is both symbol and concrete embodiment.”

Krauthammer does not help his case with his ridiculously rose-colored description of the Republican Party “returning to a more constitutionalist conservatism committed to reforming, restructuring and reining in the welfare state (see, for example, the Paul Ryan Medicare reform passed by House Republicans with near-unanimity).” In fact, as longtime nonpartisan congressional analysts Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Thomas Mann of The Brookings Institution point out, following Ryan down his rabbit hole is a prescription for policy incoherence for the Republicans. They write:

The House majority then doubled down in mid-March with a new budget (remarkably similar to the one the Romney-Ryan ticket ran and lost on) from House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan that promised huge tax rate cuts and additional, draconian cuts in discretionary domestic spending that would, if enacted, threaten the economic recovery, damage core areas of government responsibility, and devastate health, food, and housing assistance for low-income households.

The primary cause of this, they add, is the fact that:

The Republican Party continues to demonstrate that it is an insurgent force in our politics, one that aspires to rewrite the social contract and role of government developed and affirmed over a century by both major political parties. The old conservative GOP has been transformed into a party beholden to ideological zealots, one that sees little need to balance individualism with community, freedom with equality, markets with regulation, state with national power, or policy commitments with respect for facts, evidence, science, and a willingness to compromise.

It is also a prescription for permanent political unpopularity. The unpopularity of the Republican right-wing agenda is demonstrated in poll after poll. Congress itself has never been more unpopular in history. And yet, according to Krauthammer, the problems with the healthcare.gov website “will discredit Obama’s new liberalism for years to come.”

In a rational political world, predictions such as these should discredit the likes of Krauthammer, Nocera, Fournier, and their fellow Chicken Little types in the minds of the editors who publish them. But, of course, they won’t. Pundits don’t ever face voters.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, recently released in paperback.

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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