There is a final parallel between the troubles that beset the Iraq and Obamacare projects that has not received much attention in the partisan debate. Both sets of troubles were not really predicted by the opponents who later claimed vindication because of them. The anti-war movement warned that fighting in Iraq would produce blowback terrorism against American civilians and chemical-weapons deaths among American troops. What actually happened — the disintegration of the Iraqi state followed by America’s desperate attempt to pick up the pieces — did not feature heavily in the opposition’s arguments.
The foes of Obamacare argued that it would increase rather than decrease costs, reduce access to doctors, and so forth. Very few of them, however, foresaw that the federal government (and many state governments) would be incapable of developing the websites the program required in the requisite time. They thought that the “markets” that Obamacare created would be misshapen and irrational. They did not doubt that the administration would be able to create them at all.
Thanks to the law and its implementation, many Americans are finding themselves without the old insurance plans they were told they would have, unable to buy replacement plans, and liable to pay the fines for not getting them that Obama opposed in 2008. That is not a scenario even the most committed enemies of Obamacare expected.
The websites may be fixed eventually, but even if they are, the program may be lastingly handicapped by their early difficulties. Those difficulties may very well mean that the initial pool of people in the exchanges is much sicker and older than the administration hoped, and that premiums and subsidies will therefore have to be much higher. And that in turn will affect for the worse how those risk pools develop in the future.
Supporters of the Iraq War, many of them, could hardly believe what they read and saw from 2004 through 2007. Surely there were smart people in our government who knew what they were doing. Surely they had plans for all contingencies. The Obama administration, judging from some of the recent reporting, had a similar faith that the smart tech experts within its orbit would be on top of implementation.
If there is a wider lesson here, it is that the grand designs of governments, left or right, can go wrong in many more ways than they can go right, than anyone can foresee, and than even the “best and the brightest” — as Obama recently, and without irony, called his Web designers — can fix.
— Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor at National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg View, and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.