Please don’t cut me in half!!
The big political news of the last 36 hours, of course, is that President Obama has created a loophole in his own law. In order to live up to the oft-quoted “if you like your insurance, you can keep your insurance,” he has now announced that people will be able to keep their old plans through the 2014 calendar year.
I know what President Obama is hoping to accomplish with this temporary fix. He’s hoping that it will temporarily satisfy voters, appeasing them and renewing their goodwill with the Democratic party through the 2014 midterm election. His approval ratings have reached record lows, so the running Senators cannot hope to ride his coattails. In addition, since this piece of legislation is the Democratic Party’s defining act of the last couple of years, it is really important that it not be perceived as a failure.
But between the disastrous website roll-out, the abysmal enrollment numbers thus far, and the millions of cancellation notices that have been sent to people who were apparently happy with their “substandard” policies, well, let’s just say it hasn’t been a rousing success. You can tell by the fact that Democratic politicians with something to lose have been jumping off the bandwagon as fast as humanly possible. First, it was Senator Mary Landrieu, who introduced the “Keeping the Affordable Care Act Promise Act.” (Just the name itself is a bit of a slap in the face of her ostensible ally, the President.) Then the party’s elder statesman, playing the long game with his wife’s future Presidential candidacy, tried to give himself plausible deniability against the least-popular aspect of the new law.
Of course, Senator Landrieu’s bill poses a serious threat to the foundation of Obamacare. As I’ve discussed previously, the bill hinges on a sort of redistribution of wealth—the middle-class and wealthy pay more (even the people who don’t need more), in order to ensure that the poor can be covered. If the middle-class and wealthy aren’t paying more, who is going to cover the cost of the poor?
The President’s bill was in jeopardy on the left from Senators like Landrieu and Feinstein who would make the Affordable Care Act unsustainable. It was also in danger from the right, thanks to the continuing threat of repeal from Senators like Cruz—a threat that might carry more weight as the law became increasingly unpopular. So, to appease both threats, the President split the difference and came up with his compromise.
That’s why he did it. How he is going to do it is another question. As Paul Mirengoff explains, the President does not have the authority to bypass his own law.
Even if he did, however, this so-called “fix” strikes me as the equivalent of King Solomon cutting the baby in half. (For the sake of this analogy, President Obama is both the King, doing the cutting, and the mother, since the bill is his offspring.) He’s trying to quiet his opponents on both sides, but he’s going to end up with a dead baby on his hands, without solving either of his problems. For the people who get to keep their plans through 2014—great! Until 2015. Then what? (Doesn’t it seem like President Obama has a habit of kicking problems down the road? Federal debt crisis, anyone?) He’s just postponing, not solving, the problem. That may alleviate pressure for the 2014 midterm, but then again, if people start getting cancellation notices again right around election day, it may not.
It also puts the viability of the program in danger, for the same reason that Senator Landrieu’s bill would have done. Granted, it’s only for a year, but we still don’t know whether it will cause a so-called “death spiral.” So this solution isn’t avoiding that potential pitfall either; at best, it’s lessening the blow by making it temporary.
Look, I’m not one of these people who is hoping that Obama will fail in his mission. (My political affiliations just aren’t strong enough for me to favor my party’s success over the nation’s.) Healthcare is a mess and I genuinely admire that he has waded into the muck to try to make the situation better for the majority of Americans. But as the expression goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Rhetoric and idealism are not sufficient when you’re overhauling a multi-billion dollar industry that deals with life and death. I sincerely hope he is able to pull this off. But right now, I am not counting on it.