The Corner

New Republic Editor: Obamacare ‘Is a Threat to Liberalism’

The Left is splintering. Not necessarily politically yet, but intellectually at least. One group continues to sell Obamacare as a success-in-waiting; the other is worrying aloud about the potentially deleterious effects that failure could have on the wider progressive movement.

The editor of the New Republic, Franklin Foer, is in the latter camp. In a piece simply titled, “Obamacare’s Threat to Liberalism,” Foer yesterday outlined the case. Rejecting the derisive term that the Obama administration has contrived for dissenters — “bed-wetters” — Foer explains that “two months into the dysfunctional life of healthcare.gov. . . that seems a perfectly appropriate physiological reaction.” With the disastrous launch, 

the administration has badly injured that cause, confirming the worst slurs against the federal government. It has stifled bad news and fudged promises; it has failed to translate complex mechanisms of policy into plain English; it can’t even launch a damn website. What’s more, nobody responsible for the debacle has lost a job or suffered a demotion.

This is not merely a problem for this president, Foer explains, as, say, Katrina was for President Bush. Nor it is it just a temporary threat to the perceived competency of the Democratic party. Instead, the whole progressive project is on the block. Why? Because:

Liberalism has spent the better part of the past century attempting to prove that it could competently and responsibly extend the state into new reaches of American life.

And now it looks as if it can’t.

Foer goes through some of the history of the progressive movement, and outlines the struggle that pioneers of a muscular state went through into order to intrude upon the latent libertarianism of the American public. Then he posits a counter-factual: 

A two-page bill could have extended Medicare and provided universal coverage, but by relying so heavily on the private market, and straining to avoid the taint of Big Government, the Affordable Care Act is the Russian novel of social policy, now totaling 20,202 pages. Loopholes and exemptions abound. As Ezra Klein has grimly warned, “Far from introducing innovation and efficiency into the system, the decision to build a complex, 50-state public-private hybrid has introduced towering complexity into the project, and seems, potentially, to be beyond the government’s capacity to do well.”

Buried in this argument is the peculiar suggestion that “a two-page bill” that “could have extended Medicare and provided universal coverage” would have had a chance of clearing the system. It wouldn’t, of course. Either way, though, the Democratic party, which Foer concedes is “the party of government,” chose to stake its reputation on the complex substitute. This was a huge ask in the age of the iPhone – and one that the next president (which Foer seems to believe will inevitably be a woman) will have to meet:

She must contend with the new expectations that technology has set, with all of those devices that arrive in our hands seemingly glitch free. That’s what the Obama administration somehow failed to grasp and what liberalism requires if it ever wants to replicate its greatest victories.

Toward the end, Foer laments that, “fortunately for the New Deal, Twitter didn’t broadcast every farmer’s sad encounter with the Agriculture Adjustment Act.” I’m not sure that I share the author’s pleasure in noting that, in the absence of social media, the state could ride roughshod over American citizens with impunity. Nevertheless, here Foer has struck upon a key point. American “liberalism” has now to contend with the Brave New World that it once assumed would be instinctively on its side. That is not necessarily going to be the case, and the president’s decision to bet the farm on a law that few wanted is looking more and more like a mistake every day.

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