The shutdown is over, and the Democrats have won. Now, we will be told incessantly about the damage that was done to the Republican party, about the insurrectionist “fever” that the president masterfully succeeded in “breaking,” and about the free hand that the White House has to implement Obamacare, its central achievement.
All of this is to be expected, but it is not necessarily to be taken seriously. Given the romantic and unrealistic goals that it established at the outset — and the calamitous absence of anything approaching a strategy throughout — the Republican party can certainly have been said to have “lost” the shutdown. And yet this was a loss that was marked not by any serious policy concessions but by the maintenance of the status quo. The president succeeded in ensuring that his side did not lose anything it wanted, yes. But as Dan Meyer, Newt Gingrich’s former chief of staff, observes, he also “didn’t get more revenue. He didn’t get the sequester caps lifted. All those decisions were punted.”
Punted to less promising ground for the Democratic party, too.
Whether or not the national media will elect to focus on the Obamacare rollout mess now that it cannot claim to be distracted by the shutdown will, in truth, be largely irrelevant going forward. Up and down the country, local newspapers are telling brutal stories of breathtaking technical incompetence and of genuine sticker shock. The national papers can continue to append to objective criticisms the usual “Republicans say . . . ” but it is pretty clear to all but the truest of believers that the administration’s promises are in tatters and that its critics are starting to look happily prescient. The media are corrupt; but they’re not corrupt enough to hide the debacle.
Indeed, even the law’s fiercest advocates have been impressed into conceding that the rollout has been a disgrace. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, Obama cheerleader par excellence, has characterized the launch as a “disaster.” Former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs has argued on television that the episode has been “excruciatingly embarrassing.” Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum, meanwhile, has echoed the growing fear that the issues will be with us for the long haul. “The bugs,” he wrote this week, “seem deep and profound.”
Rather amusingly, Drum went on to ask, “Why has this turned out to be so much worse than I thought it would be?” This prompted a blunt answer from my colleague Jim Geraghty: Well, “because you have way too much faith in the good intentions and competence of Obama administration officials.” Jim is correct, and herein lies a real threat not only to Obamacare but to the entire progressive sales pitch of “Let us take charge!” This is to say that the failure of the administration to deliver a simple website in three years is an indictment of technocracy itself and, more specifically, of the ugly Wilsonian contention that governments are realistically able to “open for the public a bureau of skilled, economical administration” run by the “hundreds who are wise” for the good of the “selfish, ignorant, timid, stubborn, or foolish.” Back in June, HHS technologists were telling The Atlantic that “it’s incredible what can happen when you give a team of talented developers and managers [room to work] and let them go.” They were right. As we have learned in these past three weeks, it is indeed incredible what happens when the federal government does this.
Conservatives have been presented with a golden opportunity to remind Americans why bloated, arrogant, centralized government is not to be trusted in this age or the next. They must take it. Obamacare, as Ross Douthat has observed, is “the whole ballgame for liberalism right now.” If it fails, the “hoped-for of liberalism will have been foreclosed, not by Tea Party extremism, but by a liberal administration’s own unforced errors.”
Irony of ironies, the truth is that Obamacare is far more likely to be delayed by the White House than by the Tea Party — or, for that matter, by anybody in the conservative movement. In an in-depth piece that delves into the “third world experience” offered by the online exchanges, the New York Times confirmed that “the growing national outcry has deeply embarrassed the White House.” This is a president who, to put it rather mildly, does not do well with being laughed at and who has a nasty habit of attempting to remove anything that he can from the immediate judgment of the electorate. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that the man who has so steadfastly rebuffed Republican attempts to delay his beloved law will be forced by events and pride to add another delay of his own. Remember: For all the talk of “nullification” and “sedition,” Obama is the only political actor in Washington who has thus far managed to effect any changes to the law whatsoever.