History Will Forget the Obamacare Website’s Bungled Launch

The media has written a cruel first draft, but it won’t last.

National Journal
Lucia Graves
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Lucia Graves
Dec. 10, 2013, midnight

Na­tion­al Re­view‘s Ramesh Pon­nuru says Obama­care — like George W. Bush’s Ir­aq War — should per­suade Amer­ic­ans that “the grand designs of gov­ern­ments, left or right, can go wrong in many more ways than they can go right, than any­one can fore­see, and than even the ‘best and the bright­est’ … can fix.”

It’s not an ori­gin­al thought, it’s not ex­clus­ive to con­ser­vat­ive com­ment­at­ors, and it’s not ex­actly news to the White House. From The New Re­pub­lic to the West Wing, pro­gress­ives are wor­ried that — as TNR‘s John Ju­dis put it — a failed Obama­care will “re­in­force for a gen­er­a­tion the ar­gu­ment against any gov­ern­ment ini­ti­at­ives.”

So call it a con­sensus, and one that res­on­ates in the Oval Of­fice. But don’t call it right.

Be­cause his­tory sug­gests it’s wrong.

Pon­nuru and oth­er Obama crit­ics are spot-on when they say the Bush years of­fer a ready ana­logue to Obama­care, but it’s not Ir­aq. It’s the rol­lout of Medi­care Part D in 2006.

Like Obama­care, as Ezra Klein re­cently poin­ted out, it was a massive med­ic­al ex­pan­sion with ad­min­is­trat­ive com­plex­ity. Like Obama­care, the Medi­care Part D web­site didn’t work upon launch. And like Obama­care, people saw their plans can­celed and sup­posedly bet­ter al­tern­at­ives rendered in­ac­cess­ible.

Then as now, the me­dia jumped to doc­u­ment the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s every mis­step fol­low­ing the rol­lout of the web­site. NPR and The Wash­ing­ton Post de­tailed the mount­ing en­roll­ment dis­aster, while The New York Times re­por­ted that Medi­care Part D might cost the GOP sup­port among the eld­erly. “Older voters, a crit­ic­al com­pon­ent of Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al vic­tor­ies for more than a dec­ade, could end up be­ing a ma­jor vul­ner­ab­il­ity for the party in this year’s midterm elec­tions, ac­cord­ing to strategists in both parties,” Ceci Con­nolly wrote in The Times.

Pun­dits were even more un­spar­ing. Mi­chael Kins­ley wrote in The Wash­ing­ton Post, “The hideous com­plex­ity of Pres­id­ent Bush’s pre­scrip­tion drug pro­gram has re­duced eld­erly Amer­ic­ans — and their chil­dren — to tears of be­wildered frus­tra­tion.” And Paul Krug­man wrote in The Times, “We are ruled by bun­glers. Every ma­jor ven­ture by the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, from the oc­cu­pa­tion of Ir­aq to the Medi­care drug pro­gram, has turned in­to an epic saga of in­com­pet­ence.”

And now, how many voters re­mem­ber the Medi­care Part D rol­lout?

It’s the nature of the news in­dustry to fo­cus on what’s gone wrong as op­posed to, say, what’s work­ing or what’s mov­ing in the dir­ec­tion of pro­gress. It was true in 2006. It’s true today. It will likely be true in the fu­ture.

That’s not, however, how his­tory gets writ­ten — or how people think over the long haul.

Demo­crats know this and are count­ing on the me­dia’s nar­rat­ive be­ing tossed.

“The Dec. 1 dead­line was im­port­ant, but there won’t be chapters in the his­tory books writ­ten about Dec. 1,” said Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee spokes­man Mi­chael Czin. “I think it’s im­port­ant to look at this hol­ist­ic­ally.”

That’s what you al­ways say when you’re los­ing on the par­tic­u­lars. Look at the big pic­ture, the long arc of his­tory! But this isn’t just wish­ful think­ing. Yes, Health­Care.gov may well have con­sequences for Demo­crats in 2014. But any­thing much bey­ond that is hy­per­bole. Amer­ic­ans and the me­dia have already for­got­ten the sup­posedly “hor­rendous” rol­lout of Medi­care Part D, and it happened just sev­en years ago, when most seasoned mem­bers of the Wash­ing­ton press corps were already in Wash­ing­ton.

If the White House is alarmed by the out­land­ish­ness of the vari­ous “Obama­care is as bad as”¦.” com­par­is­ons — Ir­aq, Kat­rina, the sink­ing of the Ti­tan­ic, the Battle of Wa­ter­loo, the ex­plo­sion of the space shuttle Chal­lenger — it should be heartened by the fact that the me­dia can’t even re­mem­ber the more re­cent and ger­mane ex­ample.

If the me­dia can’t re­mem­ber 2006, will voters a dec­ade from now, con­fron­ted with the pos­sib­il­ity of some new gov­ern­ment pro­gram, really stop and say, “Re­mem­ber how that web­site didn’t work right in 2013?”

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