The temptation to cry “sabotage!” is a genuinely human one, born of the understandable desire to protect one’s worldview and to attribute blame to one’s enemies instead of oneself. Discredited socialists still grumble bitterly about the impurity of the unrealized Soviet Experiment; “false-flag” kooks remain convinced that 9/11 was an “inside job,” despite there being no evidence for this whatsoever; and some conservatives who have never come to terms with the fact that Barack Obama has twice won the American presidency are now more convinced than ever that he must have stolen the elections.
If a group under siege can demonstrate “that there has been a conspiracy, which has transformed politics and society,” the British writer David Aaranovitch, astutely observed in Voodoo Histories, then they can convince themselves that “their defeat is not the product of their own inherent weakness or unpopularity, let alone their mistakes,” but is instead “due to the almost demonic ruthlessness of their enemy.”
This observation has screamed back into my mind this week as I watched the disastrous rollout of Obamacare’s much-vaunted health-care exchanges provoke apologists into spreading nonsense. Somewhere, deep down, the president’s allies must know that their man blew the launch — and blew it good. Nevertheless, some of the brighter members of the movement have caught themselves in a trap, responding to the widespread criticism of their signature achievement with the ludicrous allegation that it is being thwarted by outside forces — namely, Republicans and their donors. Indeed, even Barack Obama has proven susceptible.
In the course of a defiant speech at the White House, the president rode bravely into the realm of magical thinking: “It’s time for folks to stop rooting for its failure,” Obama said, adopting the panicked tones of a cheap infomercial salesman. Why? “Because hardworking middle-class families are rooting for its success.” For her part, Nancy Pelosi offered her own insinuation yesterday, suggesting that Republicans who continued to oppose the law were guilty of “sabotage.”
I should make it clear that I have precisely no intention whatsoever of ceasing to “root for failure.” I am actively hoping for the abject and embarrassing deterioration of Obamacare and I am not remotely ashamed to admit it. I loathe the law as a piece of public policy, as a means by which federal involvement in health care and society is being expanded rather than reduced, and as an unlovely example of the arrogance that presidents in the modern era have come to exhibit. Like Ed Rogers, “I would like to see the project’s collapse deter those who think a bigger, more domineering U.S. government is the answer to our problems.” And, like David Harsanyi, I want the project to fail “so hard that any residual perception among voters that any part of it was prudent policy is completely eliminated.”
In this regard, the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent is absolutely correct when he complains that aristarchs such as myself “don’t envision the federal government playing an ambitious oversight role in regulating the health system — or spending the money necessary — in service of the goal of expanding coverage to tens of millions of uninsured.” I don’t.
That notwithstanding, my opinion on this matter has absolutely no bearing on the outcome — and to pretend that it does is extremely naïve. I am not possessed of any magical power with which I might prevent the law from working, any more than I am able to stare at an airplane and will it to crash into the ground. I did not award a no-bid contract to a failed Canadian IT firm, nor ensure that the system wasn’t tested until four days before it launched, nor allow it to be “built using ten-year-old technology.” Nor, for that matter, did Republicans. Unless you believe that the role of Congress is merely to “support” the president in all that he does, the fact that more than half of the voting public and one of the country’s two political parties have been critical should not be held against them.
Salon’s Irin Carmon complained sadly this week that “the federal exchanges [are] being burdened by so many more people than expected because for political reasons, a lot of governors refused to set up their own exchanges.” This line is not just askew, it is deeply presumptuous. While the idea that the system is failing because of excess demand has been widely debunked, Carmon is correct to note that a majority of governors declined to set up exchanges, and that they did so for “political reasons.” But, one might ask, “So what?” Texas is a state in a federal nation, and the law that the president signed allows the states to decide how to respond to what is, ultimately, a federal initiative.
To believe that the states have in some way “nullified” or “sabotaged” the law by choosing not to do the lifting themselves is to believe that the states are merely regional departments of the federal government and that their electing whether or not to expand Medicaid or set up health-care exchanges is illegitimate. In this case, “political reasons” means doing what the people in their states wanted them to do. What next? That “if Americans had just chosen to sign up, then the system would have worked”?
A frequent criticism of this president is that he does not yet appear to have noticed that he heads up the government. Barack Obama is quite capable of saying that he is as “angry as anyone” about the mistakes of his own administration, but a little less adept at knowing when to say “sorry.” Even here, with the law that bears his name, and which he fought for years to pass and to protect, his instinct is to look elsewhere.
As the scale of the disaster they have unleashed has dawned on them, both the president and his press secretary have started subtly to conflate the shutdown and the Obamacare launch. Barack Obama made sure to float this conceit during his big speech on Monday, framing discussion of the problems with Healthcare.gov by reminding the audience that, “about three weeks ago, as the federal government shut down, and the Affordable Care Act’s health-insurance marketplaces opened up across the country . . . ” On Tuesday, Jay Carney attempted this ruse, too, answering a question posed by Fox’s Ed Henry with “Ed, over many, many days now — three weeks now — even though for several of them we were focused on the extreme damage Republicans were doing to the economy through the shutdown and brinkmanship . . . ” In truth, the shutdown and the exchanges were launched on the same day. But let’s not let that get in the way of a good distraction.
Amusingly, the president’s defiance has simultaneously inspired his base and irritated the press corps. Friendly journalists such as Ezra Klein, Greg Sargent, and Ryan Lizza have been brutally honest about the scale of the mess, while, in the alternative universe that progressive users of social media inhabit, frustrated defenders of the rollout have started to blame the usual suspects. Do a quick search on Twitter for the words “Koch sabotage” and you’ll find an astonishing number of results. The same goes for “Koch Obamacare” and “Koch ruined,” too.
This was almost certainly inevitable. Both sides have their crazies, and times of trouble only bring out the worst in partisans. But it would be nice if the people who inflicted this turbulent law on the rest of us could recognize that it is one thing for the faithful to indulge in conspiracy theory and blame and to look desperately for ghosts in the machine, and quite another for their elected officials to do so. The problems with Obamacare are of design, of leadership, and, ultimately, of hubris. It is possible that they will be fixed and the program will be back on track before it collapses under the weight of its own contradictions. Either way, though, there is a tough road ahead — and eliminating the kulaks won’t help one bit.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer for National Review.