Obamacare’s Banana-Republic Logic

by Charles C. W. Cooke
Your old plans are now illegal, but don’t blame the White House.

When, on October 21, Barack Obama stepped sanguinely up onto the Rose Garden podium and steadied himself to address the nation, few Americans expected to see bravado. Despite his topic being the calamitous rollout of his signature law, however, bravado is precisely what they got.

The president, it was quickly observed, appeared not to have noticed that his plan wasn’t working. Instead, he resembled an unflappable salesman, insisting indignantly that his product was good, enthusiastically repeating the telephone number for his sales team, and knocking his competitors for the inferiority of their offerings. Given the scale of the disaster at hand, his pose was something of a shock.

Widespread criticism of the president’s tone did little to diminish his spirits, and before long Valerie Jarrett had put out a trial balloon, imprudently claiming that “nothing in Obamacare forces people out of their health plans” because “no change is required unless insurance companies change existing plans.” We were in it for the long haul.

Jarrett’s sick joke, as her colleagues’ similar output made clear, was not an over-exuberant Hail Mary — a nice attempt that would be quickly squashed and hastily deleted — but instead an early draft of what has now become the central mendacity of the government’s official stance: that whatever failures Obamacare has suffered thus far are the fault of capitalist wreckers playing games with people’s lives, and not with the design of the law.

It is one thing to hear the likes of Valerie Jarrett and Jay Carney run with the claim that the behavior of America’s insurance companies is in no way related to federal law, but quite another to hear it from a man who does not owe his living to the lie. It was thus with some amazement that I read Juan Williams’s Fox News column this week and realized that the claim is gaining currency outside of the White House. Parroting the administration’s intellection almost verbatim, Williams instructed his readers that they “should be blaming your insurance company because they have not been providing you with coverage that meets the minimum basic standards for health care.” The government, he continued obediently, did “not ‘force’ insurance companies to cancel their own substandard policies,” but “the insurance companies chose to do that rather than do what is right and bring the policies up to code.”

This, I am afraid, is the logic of banana republics, not of free nations built explicitly on what Thomas Jefferson termed a “homage of reason,” and it is an unutterable disgrace that Williams is indulging it from the outside. When the system works as it should, governments attempt such longshot excuses only to distance themselves from accountability, and those whose job it is to enforce that accountability routinely expose the endeavor. Williams is apparently happily unaware of his role. By pretending that there is a generally agreed-upon definition of a “minimum basic standard of health care,” and steadfastly ignoring that millions upon millions of people in the United States were quite happy with the products that insurance companies offered, he isn’t speaking truth to power but playing the administration’s game, which is to blame the law-abiding for following the law and hope that nobody notices. What price that stopping buck, eh?

As Williams is apparently unwilling to say it, I shall do it for him: Of course the government “forced” insurance companies to cancel their existing plans. Why? Because the government made them illegal. The reason that providers are no longer offering products that they previously sold is that they are no longer allowed to. They are prohibited from doing so on pain of what we have so witlessly been told over and over Is. The. Law. The variable here, remember, is not the insurance companies, but Obamacare. And the basic difference between the pre-Obamacare days and the post-Obamacare days is that the ostensibly “substandard policies” that Williams so derides were not illegal before, whereas they are illegal now. This should be so obvious as not to need saying, but if insurance companies were to bring their policies up to the new “code,” as Williams enjoins them to do, they wouldn’t be the existing policies anymore — they would be different policies, for which, we were told back when the law was but a glint in the technocrats’ eyes, there would be no need.

The policy debate that is currently raging is whether the government should have made these changes to the law, not whether it did. And yet with his ceaseless circular reasoning, Williams is indulging the administration in its attempt to ignore that debate completely and helping it to pretend that Obamacare was simply a minor tweaking of basic regulations. Inevitably, the gymnastics required to pretend that Obamacare is not responsible for the changes contained within Obamacare eventually prove too tough for anybody, and by the end of his paean, Williams, too, is forced into self-parody. “Your insurance company must cover what are called ‘essential health benefits,’” he notes admiringly. And then he asks a rhetorical question: “What are ‘essential health benefits?’”

His answer?

They are clearly defined on HealthCare.gov.

Well, fancy that.

The idea that the state may set new rules and then credibly blame the population for following them is not only logically absurd, but is also an extraordinarily dangerous precedent to set in a nation whose institutions presuppose democratic accountability. If the government were to set new press standards that required all newspaper columns to conform to new rules or be censored, and journalists cried out in dissent, would it be reasonable for the administration to insist that the real fault lay with those unwilling or unable to adjust their writing to meet the new standards? Or would it be flagrantly obvious that the difference was that we had new press standards that weren’t there before?

If the government asserted that certain popular guns would be henceforth “substandard” and passed new “codes” requiring those guns to be changed or be outlawed — and then brazenly pretended not only that those guns hadn’t been “banned” but that their owners and manufacturers were to blame for refusing to “bring them up to code”? Would that convince anybody? One hopes not.

To listen to Williams and his friends in the White House, one gets the impression that Obamacare’s central provisions are not so much the controversial determinations of a group of flawed and accountable lawmakers but instead a set of transcendent truths, delivered from on high and beyond the realm of criticism, rectification, or repeal. Suffice it to say that such notions have no good place in a free country, belonging instead to that species of leader whose perfect edicts ostensibly fail only because they have been subverted by the unwilling.

This is to say that while one expects politicians to sell their designs in the language of inevitability and their failures as the product of sabotage, one does not expect these maneuvers to be indulged by the supposedly skeptical watchmen in the press corps. When the state says that 2 plus 2 is 5, we rely upon the Juan Williamses of the world to stand up and observe that it damn well is not. That he has instead taken to winking at the security in the press room and slipping that extra 1 under the table is disquieting indeed.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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