Politics & Policy

Obamacare Schadenfreudarama

(Roman Genn)
It feels pretty good to watch the whole thing fail.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the unraveling of Obamacare.

First, the obligatory caveats. It is no laughing matter that millions of Americans’ lives have been thrown into anxious chaos as they lose their health insurance, their doctors, their money, or all three. Nor is it particularly amusing to think of the incredible waste of time and tax dollars that has gone into Obamacare’s construction. And the still-unfolding violence that this misbegotten legislation will visit on the economy and our liberties is not funny either. This very magazine has been downright funereal about the brazen and unconstitutional seizure of one-sixth of the economy, and rightly so.

But come on, people.

If you can’t take some joy, some modicum of relief and mirth, in the unprecedentedly spectacular beclowning of the president, his administration, its enablers, and, to no small degree, liberalism itself, then you need to ask yourself why you’re following politics in the first place. Because, frankly, this has been one of the most enjoyable political moments of my lifetime. I wake up in the morning and rush to find my just-delivered newspaper with a joyful expectation of worsening news so intense, I feel like Morgan Freeman should be narrating my trek to the front lawn. Indeed, not since Dan Rather handcuffed himself to a fraudulent typewriter, hurled it into the abyss, and saw his career plummet like Ted Kennedy was behind the wheel have I enjoyed a story more.

Alas, the English language is not well equipped to capture the sensation I’m describing, which is why we must all thank the Germans for giving us the term “schadenfreude” — the joy one feels at the misfortune or failure of others. The primary wellspring of schadenfreude can be attributed to Barack Obama’s hubris — another immigrant word, which means a sinful pride or arrogance that causes someone to believe he has a godlike immunity to the rules of life.

The hubris of our ocean-commanding commander-in-chief surely isn’t news to readers of this website. He’s said that he’s smarter and better than everyone who works for him. His wife informed us that he has “brought us out of the dark and into the light” and that he would fix our broken souls. The man defined sin itself as “being out of alignment with my values.” We may be the ones we’ve been waiting for, but at the same time, everyone has been waiting for him. Or as he put it in 2007, “Every place is Barack Obama country once Barack Obama’s been there.”

In every tale of hubris, the transgressor is eventually slapped across the face with the semi-frozen flounder of reality. The Greeks had a god, Nemesis, whose scythe performed the same function. It was Nemesis who lured Narcissus to the pool where he fell in love with his own reflection. Admittedly, most of Nemesis’s walk-on roles were in the Greek tragedies, but in the modern era, comeuppance-for-the-arrogant is more often found in comedies, and the “rollout” of Healthcare.gov has been downright hilarious. (I put quotation marks around “rollout” because the term implies actual rolling, and this thing has moved as gracefully as a grand piano in a peat bog.) But, as the president says, “it’s more than a website.” Indeed, the whole law is coming apart like a papier-mâché yacht in rough waters. The media feeding frenzy it has triggered from so many journalistic lapdogs has been both so funny and so poignant, it reminds me of nothing more than the climax of the classic film Air Bud, when the lovable basketball-playing golden retriever finally decides to maul the dog-abusing clown.

During the government shutdown, Barack Obama held fast, heroically refusing to give an inch to the hostage-taking, barbaric orcs of the Tea Party who insisted on delaying Obamacare. It was a triumph for the master strategist in the White House, who finally maneuvered the Republicans into revealing their extremism. But we didn’t know something back then: Obama desperately needed a delay of Healthcare.gov. In his arrogance, though, he couldn’t bring himself to admit it. The other possibility is that he is such an incompetent manager, who has cultivated such a culture of yes-men, that he was completely in the dark about the problems. That’s the reigning storyline right now from the White House. Obama was betrayed. “If I had known,” he told his staff, “we could have delayed the website.”

This is how you know we’re in the political sweet spot: when the only plausible excuses for the administration are equally disastrous indictments.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it took about five minutes for liberals to cast the chaos and confusion of the disaster as a searing indictment of not just the Bush administration but of conservatism itself. Whatever the merits of that argument (and there are not many), Katrina was at least a surprise. The October 1 deadline for Obamacare was set by Obama’s own administration years ago — and it caught them completely off guard. The president may now claim that he knew nothing, but he must have wondered why Henry Chao, Healthcare.gov’s chief project manager, set the bar of success at sea level last March: “Let’s just make sure it’s not a Third World experience.” At this point, it could only be more of a Third World experience if Healthcare.gov required enrollees to pay with chickens.

Regardless, if Obama were a tenth as good a politician as he thinks he is, he could have blamed the delay he desperately needed on his political enemies, calling them “hostage-takers” even as he secretly understood they had rescued his most beloved hostage from his own incompetence. Instead, on September 26, he went out and told an adoring audience: “On October 1, millions of Americans . . . will finally be able to buy quality, affordable health insurance. In five days.” “Starting Tuesday,” he added, Americans will be able to “compare and purchase affordable health-insurance plans, side by side, the same way you shop for a plane ticket on Kayak — same way you shop for a TV on Amazon. You just go on and you start looking, and here are all the options.”

Come on, that’s hilarious.

Okay, maybe he didn’t know then what bad shape the website was in. But how to explain the president’s remarks three weeks after the debut of Healthcare.gov? Even if it’s true that the president only hears about bad news from the newspapers, by then the papers were full of reports that Healthcare.gov worked about as well as a Somali superconducting supercollider. Obama knew that Healthcare.gov was a fiasco, and that the “navigators” used the same broken website that consumers had spent days poking at like Chinatown chickens in an abandoned tic-tac-toe machine, desperately but fruitlessly trying to get some reward.

And yet the president strode out into the Rose Garden anyway and told millions of Americans they could buy their coverage by phone. He told them the 1-800 operators were standing by. He told them it would take only 25 minutes to apply. None of these things were true. In his mind, Obama surely thought he was putting the issue to rest, like Zeus declaring that Odysseus would make it home alive. But here’s the thing: All that Zeus needs to do to make something happen is to say it. When Barack Obama says things, reality doesn’t bend to his will. Somehow, Barack Obama has been led to believe that his job is simply to go out and say things, as if saying things alone could change facts on the ground. So while I’m sure he thinks he sounded like the voice of eternal truth, in reality he sounded like the infomercial spokesman played by Chevy Chase in the old Saturday Night Live skit:

WIFE (GILDA RADNER): New Shimmer is a floor wax!

HUSBAND (DAN AYKROYD): No, new Shimmer is a dessert topping!

WIFE: It’s a floor wax!

HUSBAND: It’s a dessert topping!

WIFE: It’s a floor wax, I’m telling you!

HUSBAND: It’s a dessert topping, you cow!

SPOKESMAN [enters quickly]: Hey, hey, hey, calm down, you two. New Shimmer is a floor wax and a dessert topping! Here, I’ll spray some on your mop . . . and some on your butterscotch pudding . . .

HUSBAND [eating while wife mops]: Mmmmm, tastes terrific!

WIFE: And just look at that shine! But will it last?

SPOKESMAN: Hey, outlasts every other leading floor wax, two to one. It’s durable, and it’s scuff-resistant.

HUSBAND: And it’s delicious!

But not as delicious as the tears of his praetorian guard. First of all, every day Jay Carney looks even more like a little boy who put on his dad’s suit. You have to wonder what goes on in his mind, as a former journalist, when he tells his former colleagues that “the American forces have been completely destroyed with minimal Iraqi casualties.” (Oh, wait, that was Baghdad Bob. I get them confused.) And what about Dan Pfeiffer going on the Sunday shows to insist that no American should believe his or her lying eyes?

On October 1, Media Matters for America — David Brock’s sweatshop for twentysomethings who couldn’t get an internship at the DNC — raced to defend the crashed website as a sign of success, in keeping with the idea that all Obama failures are further proof of his awesomeness: “Right-Wing Media Frantically Spin Obamacare Exchange Success Into Failure.” Taking their cues from the White House, MMFA insisted that the administration’s only mistake was failing to appreciate just how popular the program would be. “Right-wing media were quick to jump on the problems, declaring them a sign of the law’s shortcomings rather than its popularity,” cackled MMFA’s Samantha Wyatt. She went on to mock various Fox News journalists and, of course, Rush Limbaugh for calling the disastrous launch a disaster. Meanwhile, Ezra Klein called the initial popularity of the site exactly “what the Republicans were afraid of.” Now even Klein has turned on the White House — more in sorrow than in anger, to be sure. When the White House has lost Ezra Klein . . . well, it still has the cast of Morning Joe. No, wait — even they have abandoned the president. Heh.

To be sure, there was some apparent plausibility to the claim that the website was working only too well, because the White House lied so confidently about what was going on. Few critics grasped at first that this was going to be the Charlie Sheen of IT launches — a spectacularly mortifying failure, punctuated with desperate shrieks of “Winning!”

It wasn’t until later that we learned that, of the uncountable hordes flocking to the federal exchanges that first day, the number who actually registered for an insurance plan totaled exactly six. At that rate, Obamacare would reach its target of 7 million enrollees around the year 5013, or 3022 a.o. (Anno Obamae).

Obviously, the website will get better. It could hardly get worse, short of a finding that it causes irritable bowel syndrome. Indeed, on the second day, the number of enrollees hit 248, according to the same leaked contractor memos. But the site needs to be able to handle tens of thousands of enrollees per day.

More recent numbers suggest that the federal exchange has enrolled about 27,000 customers since October 1, which amounts to about half an enrollee for each Obamacare “navigator.” (Someone in the White House is surely thinking, “Hey, let’s just hire another 14,000,000 navigators! Problem solved.) In order to rationalize that dismal performance the White House now must insist that they always knew the numbers would be tiny at the outset.

Here’s a number that isn’t tiny: Five million people — and counting — have lost their health insurance, despite the president’s years of “you can keep your plan” promises. The president has apologized, sort of. He says he’s “sorry” that people have found themselves in a bad situation because of “assurances” he made. But no one has lost their insurance because of the president’s assurances, they’ve lost their insurance because of the president’s law. If a captain has the lifejackets filled with cement, his assurance that “you can keep your lifejacket” is only half the crime.  Obama knew the lifejackets wouldn’t work. In 2010 he admitted that 8 to 9 million people in the individual market might “have to change their coverage” because of the law. And that’s just the individual market. Millions more will eventually lose the insurance they like because of Obamacare, according to the administration’s own internal estimates.

The cancellations aren’t a bug, they’re a feature, and the president lied about it over and over again.

And now the Democratic panic has begun. Terry McAuliffe almost lost his bid for Virginia governor because of Obamacare. Senator Kay Hagan of North Carolina has seen her double-digit lead against a generic Republican all but vanish. Henry “let’s avoid a Third World experience” Chao is now insisting he never got the memo warning of “limitless” security problems. And, just this week, the big dog himself, Bill Clinton, announced he thinks Obama should honor the “commitment” the federal government made to Americans that they can keep their health insurance. Clinton’s brazenness is a marvel to behold, given that he surely knew all along that Obama’s “incorrect promise” — to borrow the New York Times’ latest desperate euphemism — was a lie and yet he happily defended the law. Moreover, he knows that honoring that commitment would, in fact, permanently gut Obamacare.

Which is one reason why Republicans are proposing a law that would do exactly that with the “Keep Your Health Care Plan” Act. This creates a miserable predicament for Democrats. As Jim Geraghty writes: “Can you picture the ads? Senator [Insert Democrat Here] voted for the Obamacare law that took away your health insurance . . . and then voted against the Keep Your Health Plan Act.

Democrats are in the opening stages of the crab-in-a-trap phase. When crabs are caught in a trap they will try to climb out of their predicament. The problem is that other crabs will grab the would-be-escapee and pull them down. When the really nasty infighting starts, as countless Democrats look to fix or delay the law, I’m looking forward to pointing out that such an agenda was once considered “extreme,” even “racist,” by Democrats. Or to quote Harry Reid from last September: “Obamacare has been the law for four years. Why don’t they get a life and talk about something else?”

It would be great fun to watch Reid say something similar to the throngs of panicked fellow Democrats racing for the exits like the Irish peasants below decks on the Titanic. Reid, of course, is just desperate to buy time. He hopes to make it to November 30, the appointed date when the White House still insists it will be able to say, “Behold the power of this fully functional website!” Politically speaking, with every day still producing another terrible story for the White House, that is the sort of timeline that would make Godot look punctual. And that’s if they hit the deadline. So far, the press has been unable to produce a prominent IT expert willing to say on the record that the target date is feasible. Jay Carney is sticking to that promise, but the musky stench of fear, sweat, and urine wafting from the podium makes it hard for all but the true believers to put much stock in his words.

But let’s assume HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius makes the most of that copy of Web Sites for Dummies that a protester handed her at a town-hall meeting last week. Then what?

We have a hint from Colorado, where the state’s own version of Healthcare.gov has been up and running. Al Jazeera America interviewed one of Colorado’s exchange navigators a month after the debut. When asked how many people she had signed up, she replied, “So far, no one. Thus far everybody has taken a look at the rates and they’ve walked out the door. There’s sticker shock. They just can’t afford it.” Medicaid has been driving most of the enrollments, and those who have ended up in private plans are older and poorer on average than the planners had hoped.

Every day, the supposedly conspiratorial right-wing smear that Obama cared more about economic redistribution than he did about the middle class or economic growth looks more reasonable. Surely we’re allowed to say, “We told you so”?

As a matter of public policy and fiscal health, this is a mixed bag. It’s good that poor sick people without insurance coverage are getting something. On the other side of the scale, we have the fact that the country is racing toward entitlement-fueled bankruptcy. So if you can overlook that, yippee!

But as a political and ideological matter, this is beyond fantastic. For years we’ve been told that Democrats were more “reality-based,” that “facts have a liberal bias,” in the words of Paul Krugman, and that if they could just have their way, they could fix all of our problems. No one represented this arrogant promise more than Barack Obama himself. But, with an irony so rich it would be made of Corinthian leather if it was a car seat, the only way he could get his signature legislation passed was to baldly and brazenly lie about it, over and over and over again. He created a rhetorical cloud castle where no one would lose his insurance, every family would save thousands of dollars, and millions of the uninsured would suddenly get coverage. Anyone who doubted this was called a fool or a liar, or even a racist. It was, in the parlance of liberalism, a “false choice” to assert that Obamacare couldn’t be a floor wax and a dessert topping.

And all of this — every bit of it — is their own fault. The bedraggled cadres of Obama’s defenders are valiantly trying to blame it all on Republican sabotage: The Obama administration had to keep the whole thing secret for fear of “feeding the opposition,” in the words of a Washington Post reconstruction of the debacle. But when you read the stories, if you replace phrases like “keep the Republicans from finding out” with the more accurate “keep the public from finding out,” you’ll get a better sense of things. The Obama White House, by which I mean the Obama campaign, was desperate to keep voters from grasping the scope of its misinformation campaign until after the election. And then, after the election, it was afraid to let the public know what they’d been misinformed about.

The argument against gloating holds that conservatives should want Obamacare to succeed even though we said all along it couldn’t. It’s such an odd argument, particularly since the Democrats’ lies were of the first order, in that Obama’s aides actually debated and discussed them, no doubt presenting them to focus groups like a jar of “new Shimmer, now an erectile-dysfunction treatment and paint thinner all in one!”

When a product is brought to market and the market discovers — as it eventually has to — that the advertising wasn’t merely a tissue of lies but a geological stratum of lies, the utterly fair and justified response from the critics is “I told you so!” — not “Let’s make this thing bipartisan now.” That’s particularly true when the president continues to lie. On September 26 he said, “If you already have health care, you don’t have to do anything” to keep your plan. On November 3 he said, “What we said was you could keep [your plan] if it hasn’t been changed.” Who knew that dozens of flat declarative statements — “You can keep your plan. Period” — were trailed by a cloud of asterisks like so many invisible fireflies?

If Obamacare had been a shining success from Day One, do you think the Democrats would be in the mood to share the credit? Then why should Republicans be in more of a mood to share the blame?

Feel free to cross your fingers that reality will bend to the gravitational pull of Obama’s stellar ego, his invincible hubris. As for me, I’ll be sitting on the sidelines cheering on Nemesis, with joy in my heart.

— Jonah Goldberg is the author of The Tyranny of Clichés, now on sale in paperback. This piece is adapted from an essay in the November 25 issue of National Review. You can write to him by e-mail at goldbergcolumn@gmail.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO.


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