Obama's Gift to the Republicans

The ancient Greeks liked to say that character is fate.

The colossal mess that Obamacare has become reflects both the character of the legislation and that of the president who sponsored it.

The Affordable Care Act, as a government mandate for people to purchase private insurance with an array of possible subsidies, had too many moving parts. It was an accident waiting to happen.

As many of us wrote at the time, Medicare for All would be simpler to execute, easier to understand, and harder for Republicans to oppose. If doing Medicare for All in a single stroke was too heavy a lift, start with 60-year-olds, then 55-year-olds, then young people under 25, and fill in the qualifying age brackets over a decade.

In the meantime, if we wanted to expand coverage for the working poor, Medicaid was a proven vehicle. Indeed, the one part of the Affordable Care Act that is not coming off the rails is the expansion of Medicaid, because it is a public program.

But this was not to be. Instead we got a program that was poorly understood by the public because it was almost impossible to explain and even harder to execute.

President Obama, looking to fund his initiative without raising taxes, hit on the idea of imagining a trillion dollars in yet-to-be specified savings in Medicare. Seniors, not unreasonably, became concerned that their own coverage would suffer. The mid-term electoral disaster of 2010 was one part older Americans deserting the Democrats for fear of the ACA's impact on Medicare, and one part the Republican right seizing an anti-Wall Street backlash because Obama's economic team was too cozy with the big banks.

Then the Democrats got lucky. Republicans nominated a weak presidential candidate in Mitt Romney. The voters finally got fed up with Republican fun and games with government shutdowns. Democrats led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at last showed some spine and Republicans blinked first.

For a few weeks this fall, with Republican popularity at all time lows, it looked as if the Democrats would hold the Senate and possibly even take back the House in the mid-term elections of 2014. But then came the bungled roll out of Obamacare.

There is no easy fix for this mess. Delaying its effective date will only raise premiums across the board next year because insurance companies have set their prices on the assumption that millions of new, younger subscribers will sign up.

The White House hopes it can delay the chorus of political outrage long enough to repair the software. But by all accounts that will take months, and Democrats as well as Republicans want action now.

The president has lost control of both the narrative and the politics. The Republicans, who were unable to destroy Obamacare by holding the budget hostage, are now enjoying watching it fall of its own weight. The Democrats are divided into one camp uneasily standing by their president and another wanting to put distance between themselves and this mess.

The character of the legislation is only half the story. The other half is the character of the president.

This law, after all, is Obama's signature initiative. It has been on the books since March 2010, with a full implementation date of 2014. An engaged chief executive would have been demanding frequent and detailed progress reports from his team. He would have gotten early warnings about possible glitches. But this president is tragically and inexcusably hands-off.

So the debacle reflects both flawed legislation and flawed leadership. At the rate things are going, the law may never take full effect. If the bungled roll out costs Democrats control of Congress, repeal will be the Republicans' top priority.

At the time the law was passed, administration leaders and many commentators compared the Affordable Care Act to Social Security and Medicare. The analogy was never apt. These great achievements are public public programs, efficient to administer and testament to the fact that government can serve social objectives far more effectively than the private sector.

Obamacare, by contrast, is the inefficiency of "public-private partnerships" at its worst. It is a public subsidy for the private insurance industry. No fewer than 55 separate contractors were hired to design the software. Yet though it is not a true public program worthy of the name, Obamacare is being used to discredit government.

Taking the long view, it looks increasingly as if 2008 was a missed historical moment. It was a moment when Wall Street and the ideology of laissez faire were in well-deserved disgrace and the Republican Party's stewardship was discredited.

Public opinion was moving in the direction of far greater tolerance, leaving Republican views on such issues as gay rights as a backward minority view. Demographic changes also favored Democrats, and the issue of immigration reform split the Republicans. Seemingly, we were headed back towards an era of Democrats as the normal majority party, as in the era between Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.

But the blunder of Obamacare -- both its conception and its execution -- could give Republicans a reprieve. Despite their internal schisms, the sheer lunacy of so many of their positions and the fact that they don't speak for most Americans, Republicans could reap major gains. They could hardly have scripted things better.

One can only hope that whatever is done by the White House and Congress is done quickly, so that The Affordable Care Act does not continue to serve as a political piñata throughout the election year.

Robert Kuttner's new book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior Fellow at Demos.

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