As the troubles of Obamacare persist, many liberals are panicking, while many conservatives are wishfully predicting, that a failed rollout will be a death blow for liberalism.
I can't quibble with the notion that an impeccable rollout would have been good for liberalism, proof positive that effective government helps us all.
However, perfection is rarely attainable in life, so that may have been too hopeful an expectation. And if we set the standard that only if perfection is acheived does liberalism prove itself worthy, that's just setting ourselves up for repeated failure.
Fortunately, I sense a shift in attitude since I had my own little panic over liberal journalists piling on HealthCare.gov: a shift toward providing critical context and emphasizing the big picture.
This shift makes me optimistic that this unpleasant rollout process will ultimately good for liberalism and set the stage for more ambitious government. Here's why:
1. Expectations Are Being Recalibrated
As I recently wrote, botched government rollouts are nothing new, and have little bearing on a program's ultimate success.
But it's been decades since the federal government has embarked on a program of as grand scope as the Affordable Care Act. Government is out of practice, and our expectations are not properly calibrated.
It's not terribly surprising that things like tech procurement process were not refined in advance of the launch. And this one had been assembled without any help from Congress. As a White House official recently told the Washington Post, "You're basically trying to build a complicated building in a war zone, because the Republicans are lobbing bombs at us."
A lot us, myself included, were a bit lulled because we've been blessed with plenty of governmental competence under the Obama admininstration. The Recovery Act blitzed $500 billion of government spending into the economy without any significant scandal. Dicey military operations from the bin Laden raid to the ouster of Qaddafi to the Somali pirate ship hostage rescue have been deftly executed. FEMA is being turned around from the dark days of "Brownie."
So seeing government struggle is unsettling.
But in all likelihood, these problems are manageable and solveable. Panic today will be defused and forgotten tomorrow. We will not only be pleased with the final result, but we will also be better conditioned to tolerate a degree of initial imperfection, knowing that our government has the capacity to work through it.
2. Government Is Getting Smarter
Proactively taking on big complicated social problems can mean pushing government where it hasn't gone before. Take Social Security.
When it was launched, as the Social Security Bulletin recounted a few years ago, "Keeping a record of each individual's lifetime earnings was an unprecedented task, and the technology to support this Herculean effort did not even exist." But our government took on the challenge, and not only succeeded, but got smarter in the process -- from literally watching mice eat data to being saddled with millions of records without basic information to becoming innovators in punch-card technology.
Like I said above, we haven't done this sort of the thing in a long while. Our government is probably a little flabby. But now we're off the couch and working out again. We're going to be able to run a longer distance at a faster pace next time, and that's going to help liberalism get stronger and stronger.
3. Facts Will Rise To The Top
Beyond the website problems, we're also starting to hear the frustrations of individuals who are dealing with unexpected changes to their plans, and a lack of certainty about what they can get in the future. But as The Nation recently noted, only 3% of the nation runs the risk of ending up with a higher-cost (and higher-quality) plan, while the 14% of the nation which is presently uninsured will now get covered, and everyone else will be basically unaffected.
Yet we are seeing the media give the 3% the megaphone, and obscure the fact that these are mainly well-off "free riders," paying little for junk insurance that not only puts themselves at risk but also fails to spread risk, which contributes to the spiraling cost of insurance. Their umbrage will also cloud the fact that the government did not take their plan away. The government gave their insurers a grandfather clause which the insurers chose to violate.
And outside the 3%, the media will also spotlight cases of frustrated people who face uncertain changes, but will not necessarily follow-up and learn how their new plans gave them better or equivalent deals, or will not note their challenges are actually unrelated to Obamacare.
But the media is not a monolith. Instead of joining the pile-on, several journalists, liberal and traditional, are doing the spadework to provide critical context to these anecdotes.
The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn followed up with one "Obamacare victim," described the new, more robust, options she had available and was told in response, "I would jump at it" and that perhaps Obamacare was a "blessing in disguise." The Los Angeles Times followed up with another so-called "horror story" and found she was also woefully misinformed about her options. Talking Points Memo found that insurance companies who send "cancellation" letters are not informing customers of their options, feeding needless uncertainty. ThinkProgress looked into a cancer patient claiming Obamacare made her insurance company leave her state and found the insurer left for reasons unrelated to the law, while the law will provide cancer patients like her greater protections.
If there was a nationwide referendum on Obamacare today, the sensational "horror" stories would probably sway more voters than the wonkish rebuttals. But Obamacare has some luxury of time, since Republicans can't gut Obamacare so long as Obama is in office. And with time, it will become gradually clearer that these horror stories don't hold up.
If you don't share my optimism, the worst-case scenario is that opposition to Obamacare will build for the next three years, leading to a Republican wave in 2016 that allows the law to be repealed. But here's why that is unlikely...
4. The Health Insurance Industry Won't Back Repeal
The ultimate firewall against an Obamacare backlash is the insurance industry. The law is designed to expand coverage and control costs while keeping them profitable. The industry has spent millions of dollars to implement the law. The last thing it wants is to see the whole thing unravelled. In turn, the industry has not funded any repeal efforts, and would likely go ballistic if Republicans had the power and actually tried to do it.
What this all means is Obamacare has ample time to persevere after the panic, disprove the doubters and let the big picture trump the anecdotes.
And when it does, liberalism will have weathered a major test, stronger than before, and the public will be perpared to take on the next big challenge.