Losing The Long Game?

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Yuval Levin notes that Obama’s announcement yesterday “makes it more likely that the exchanges will not be able to achieve the volume and the risk-balance necessary for them to function.” He suspects the administration thinks “the risk is worth it not just because the immediate political danger is so great but also because the chances of the exchanges actually functioning anyway seem lower and lower all the time”:

That, to my mind, is what Thursday’s announcement really signals, and why I think it’s so significant. Prior instances of reckless presidential expediency in the debate over Obamacare have involved efforts to get past some immediate obstacle and just get the system into place, in the hope that once it was working the criticisms would fade away. This latest instance, however, involves roughly the opposite impulse: to sacrifice the prospects of the new system itself in the service of avoiding immediate political pain and embarrassment and without some larger goal in view.

It suggests that the administration is giving up on the long game of doing what it takes to get the system into place and then trusting that the public will come around and is adopting instead the mentality of a political war of attrition, fought news cycle by news cycle, in which the goal is to survive and gain some momentary advantage rather than to achieve a large and well-defined objective. It suggests, in other words, that the administration is coming to the view that Obamacare as they have envisioned it is not really going to happen, that they don’t know quite what is going to happen (and no one else does either), and that they need above all to keep their coalition together and keep the public from abandoning them so they can regroup when the dust clears.

That’s a very sobering thought, although I very much doubt the administration is as bearish on the law as Yuval. For my part, I thought the president should take the deserved hit but not tweak the law. Bill Clinton made that a lot harder – and boxed Obama into a classic Clinton triangulation: allowing insurance companies to restore their current clients’ canceled plans, and shifting the onus onto them. But Obama should have resisted it. For the sake of the entire law – which will be a core part of his legacy in history – he should have done a Reagan Iran-Contra Oval Office address, candidly confessing that the fact is he misled people, and is sorry. To regain that kind of credibility, you have to be one-on-one. A presser, even though I thought he showed calm and grace in it, keeps the feeding frenzy going.

It seems particularly unwise to me to weaken the law’s momentum roadrunner-midair and coherence when it is already beleaguered by the malfunctioning website, which may make a death spiral more likely next year anyway. Could he have survived the short-term political nightmare? Not without serious damage. But he is not George H W Bush, who faced re-election after breaking his No New Taxes pledge – for honorable reasons. He’s president for the next three years. If the Democrats bolted and the Congress united in trying to over-rule him, he has a veto. He may well use it anyway, to stop the Upton bill. He could have used it against any temporary fix to the law, taken all the blame, allowed Dems to defect, and then engaged on a real, actual campaign to sell the ACA to the American public. In other words: show true political conviction and finally make the unabashed moral and fiscal case for the reform he and the Democrats have so far shied from, for fear of political damage.

The great flaw of Democrats is their cowardice, which they sometimes mistake for caution.

I saw it up close in the long fight for marriage equality. For a decade, instead of actively making the case for marriage equality, they ran from it. They thought somehow they might be able to advance gay rights quietly. The gay lobby kept wanting to effectively bribe the Democrats to pass various bits and bobs which could be disguised or somehow kept from the public. I can’t tell you how many times I was effectively told: “Shhh.  The American people are too bigoted to accept this openly, so we’ll try to advance it legislatively on the downlow.” But did they really think the American people wouldn’t notice if we tried to get gay marriage by stealth? Please.

Ditto with healthcare reform. The assumption was you could not make the case that there will be winners and losers in this reform – and still pass the law. If you mentioned the losers, you’d be dead in the water. If you acknowledged the risks, you’d be done for. And so the Democrats have long been on the defensive – and their utter lack of conviction couldn’t be better illustrated by their sudden flight for the hills this week. They never truly went on the offensive – lacerating the past, touting the hugely popular aspects of the reform (pre-existing conditions, stable insurance policies, and end to free riders, etc.). And so when the going got rough, they were marooned on their own defensive island. Since they told us no one would ever lose anything with this, since they never really sold the law aggressively, since they hadn’t built popular legitimacy around it, any flaws or costs now seem like a form of deceit or failure, rather than the inevitable costs of a huge and necessary reform.

I don’t think the president can win this struggle defensively. Yet that is how he has begun it. He needs to regain the initiative and offensive or wither under a constant assault of nay-sayers, spitballs, and no-alternative opportunists. It can still happen. This is the law – and a return to the past is not feasible. Maybe this is the beginning of the real debate rather than the end. Only now are the costs as well as the benefits being revealed. Maybe in the forthcoming struggle over the law, we will finally cone to grips with the real crisis in healthcare, and the opposition will finally actually have to take some responsibility for it, and propose a genuine alternative. That may not happen until the presidential primaries take place. But if this law unravels, it will not just be brutal for Obama. It will force the Republicans at some point to say what they are for, rather than simply what they are against. And that is the real long game. And it has barely begun.

(Photo: Jim Watson/Getty.)