Does the Obamacare debacle mean the death of the American liberal dream? Thomas Edsall, an op-ed columnist for the New York Times, thinks that it might. In a strongly worded and closely reasoned piece, Edsall asks what, for many loyal Times readers, is the unthinkable question:
[I]s the federal government capable of managing the provision of a fundamental service through an extraordinarily complex system?
Sounding like some kind of Fox News contributor, the left-leaning Edsall goes on to point out that the Obamacare dream ignores some basic realities about the way the world and the government work. Democrats pitched the Affordable Care Act as a law that would let the haves keep their doctors and their plans while giving more care to the have-nots, meanwhile offering Amazon levels of service to all comers through a magical website. Now that the quest for that kind of system is looking more like a misguided unicorn hunt, Edsall suddenly, horribly, begins to see just how foolish and utopian the whole project was:
This system requires coordination of over 288 policy options (an average of eight insurers are competing for business in 36 states), each with three or more levels of coverage, while simultaneously calculating beneficiary income, tax credit eligibility, subsidy levels, deductibles, not to mention protecting applicant privacy, insuring web security, and managing a host of other data points.
A malfunction at any one of these junctures could prove fatal.
Worse, catching the magic Obamacare unicorn involves making some large and inflexible government computer systems do things they weren’t designed to do. As Edsall now belatedly understands, the IRS, DHS and other government systems can’t provide the kind of seamless service that the President’s grand dream requires. The result?
The seven million people officials initially estimated would sign up for the Obamacare insurance exchanges this year are putting their well-being and that of their families in the hands of government bureaucracies armed with demonstrably inadequate technological expertise.
And so the ghastly truth must be confessed:
Cumulatively, recent developments surrounding the rollout of Obamacare strengthen the most damaging conservative portrayals of liberalism and of big government – that on one hand government is too much a part of our lives, too invasive, too big, too scary, too regulatory, too in your face, and on the other hand it is incompetent, bureaucratic and expropriatory.
But as critical as these words seem, Edsall remains a loyal son of the left even as he mourns what he fears may be the greatest liberal failure since the Vietnam War. He blames the Obamacare debacle on the selfishness of middle class American whites— nasty, unenlightened racists that they are—who want to hog all the health care for themselves rather than share equitably with people of color:
Those who think that a critical mass of white voters has moved past its resistance to programs shifting tax dollars and other resources from the middle class to poorer minorities merely need to look at the election of 2010, which demonstrated how readily this resistance can be used politically.
Here Edsall is simultaneously overestimating the policy sophistication of the white middle class and underestimating its morality. While it is true that, as Edsall points out, Obamacare is an aggressively redistributionist program that intends to shift hundreds of billions of dollars away from the middle class to the poor, I don’t think many voters have done the math on this. They are not reacting to the $455 billion in Medicare cuts that help to feed the Obamacare beast because not many people really understand how the new system is supposed to work. And at the same time, unlikely as it may sound to the finely tuned consciences of the New York Times editorial page, there are scores of millions of middle class white Americans who don’t hate minorities and would actually like to see things go better for them.
Edsall is not the only one who doubts the goodwill of many middle class whites. Over at the proudly port-listing Plumbline blog at the Washington Post, Greg Sargent hammers the theme that America hates Obamacare because America hates poor blacks. Sargent cites a National Journal poll that shows 59 percent of those responding as believing that Obamacare will help the poor but not the country. Only 33 percent believed, however, that the law would help “people like you and your family.”
The idea that Obamacare is failing because it is too noble for an ugly people like the Americans is an appealing one for the left in these sad times, and there is no doubt that some people out there in this vast land of ours do in fact resent Obamacare because they dislike those who, they think, stand to benefit most. Compare, for example, the breakdown of white responses, listed above, to minority responses: 51 percent of minority respondents believe that Obamacare will help “people like you and your family” while 30 percent said it would not.
But just because some of the polling is driven by dislike doesn’t mean most is. Attractive as blaming whites is for liberals seeking the cushy comforts of a soothing cocoon, it would be wiser to fight the allure. You could, after all, want to help the poor and feel that American minorities, disproportionately poor, should disproportionately benefit from government help—and still think this law is a stinking fiasco of failed reform that will ultimately hurt rather than help. Is the position that one should seek ways to help the poor that strengthen rather than weaken the nation as a whole really unsound? Does the left really want to say that its goal is redistributionist policy even if that hurts the country overall?
Middle America isn’t frothing over Obamacare because we are a nation of racist policy wonks who did the math and hate the blacks. The public is angry first (as Edsall mostly seems to understand) because of the supremely infuriating blend of incompetent arrogance our Second Lincoln has brought to the greatest domestic challenge of his presidency. They are angry because an expensive and cumbersome new piece of social engineering looks badly engineered. But in the second place, they are angry because the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and its journalistic spear carriers in the MSM systematically misrepresented the nature of the new system.
Does Edsall or anybody else really think that Obamacare would have passed Congress if public opinion had understood back in 2010 that all those assurances about keeping your plan and your doctors were as bogus as the old line that the check is in the mail? Does Edsall or anybody else think that the MSM did its job in informing the public about how the new law would work and that the problems now popping up across the nation were fully aired and discussed in advance?
Edsall understands that the failure of Obamacare’s designers to create a working system and computer interface reinforces public cynicism about the federal government’s ability to solve complex social programs with top down technocratic solutions. What he doesn’t yet seem to have realized is that the Obamacare experience is strengthening the other deep public objection to centralized state social policy: it has eroded public faith in the honesty as well as the competence of liberal technocrats.
The modern administrative state depends on public faith in the administrative elite. Intellectually brilliant and eminently fair, the public spirited servants of the technocratic state are supposed to develop programs and policies that serve the general good. But what if they have other agendas? What if the administrative class has its own class interest which it attempts to advance under the cloak of disinterested social science?
Shifting the Middle America’s view of the technocracy was one of Ronald Reagan’s signal achievements. Enlightened professionals became officious and bumbling bureaucrats as many Americans lost faith in the government institutions that, liberals hoped and believed, would protect them against the forces of private greed. The George W. Bush administration, ending in the greatest American economic disaster since World War Two, led many people to think that big state, Great Society liberalism deserved another chance.
Obamacare was that chance. I agree with those cautious observers who say that there is still a chance that over time the law may recover some of the lost ground. It’s also possible, as Sean Trende has argued, that liberalism could recover even if the law never really turns around. Nevertheless, if the law continues to disappoint, a new generation of voters may come to share the Reaganite critique of the progressive state.
Liberal Democrats once hoped that President Obama would be the “Democratic Reagan.” What worries them now is that this may indeed be the case. President Obama may be the Democrat who ends up convincing millions of American millennials that Ronald Reagan was right, and that the progressive administrative state is neither honest nor competent enough to solve the problems of the American people.