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Schadenfreudarama

by Jonah Goldberg

Obamacare is a joke, so why not laugh at it?

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 Michael Moore jumping into a swimming pool 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 magazine. 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.” 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. This is how you know we’re in the political sweet spot: when the only plausible excuses for the administration are equally disastrous indictments.

Either way, 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.

The new target date for when Obama can plausibly say, “Behold the power of this fully functional website!” is November 30. 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. 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 towards entitlement-fueled bankruptcy. But 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 Sophocles could have written the script, 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.

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