In the last few days, you might have seen a news story about something called thehealthsherpa.com. The story usually goes like this: "The federal government may have screwed up when it tried to create the Obamacare web site, despite spending hundreds of millions on contractors. That's why three tech geeks thought they could do a better job. And after just a week of coding, they did it."
So have these guys solved all our problems? Is it now a piece of cake for everyone to find out what their insurance options are on the individual market? That would sure be a good thing, especially since nearly everyone complaining that their plans are being cancelled—the folks whose fate has suddenly become the most important moral and practical crisis facing America—seems to be taking their insurers at their word when they get those threatening letters instead of trying to find out what their choices actually are.
Darrell Issa smiles uncomfortably upon realizing he's posing with Judy Collins, whom he's pretty sure is some kind of hippie. (Flickr/Music First Coalition)
When Darrell Issa took the chairmanship of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform after Republicans took back the House in the 2010 election, he promised that he was going to be a dogged pursuer of the Obama administration. But at this point, I'm genuinely curious about how Republicans feel about Issa. Conservatives sincerely believe that the Obama administration is riddled with corruption, starting with the villainous president and going all the way down to the intern who makes copies in the basement of the Commerce Department. Yet Issa has turned out to be a strikingly incompetent clown, screwing things up spectacularly every time he tries to embarrass the administration and being so transparently sleazy in the way he goes about his work that he never succeeds in pinning anything on Obama.
Think about all the times Republicans thought they had Obama dead to rights and Issa couldn't deliver the goods. There was Solyndra, "Fast and Furious," the IRS scandal, and of course the one that keeps on giving, Benghazi. Obviously, the fact that they haven't mounted a successful impeachment based on any of these is mostly because there just hasn't been any criminal behavior. But every time it looks like Issa is about to whip something into a lasting scandal, he does something like what he did yesterday. First, Issa (or presumably his staff) leaks to CBS News a "partial transcript" of a closed hearing revealing that, in the words of their report, "the project manager in charge of building the federal health care website was apparently kept in the dark about serious failures in the website's security. Those failures could lead to identity theft among buying insurance." Sounds awful! But you'll be shocked to learn that neither of those things is true. Steve Benen has the details:
Few things excite a political reporter more than polls. They're the sports statistics of the electoral grind, giving any argument that little extra oomph. For people not necessarily known for their numerical prowess, a cleverly placed percentage point is the perfect condiment for any story. Heck, polls can even be the story.
Unfortunately, our enthusiasm for those alluring little numbers can end badly. In election off-season it's not so noticeable, with polls slowing to a relative trickle and our attentions focused elsewhere—or so far in the future that the ambitious dreams of Chris Christie and Hillary Clinton dancing in our heads outweigh any margins of error. But the polls are still there. Exhibit A: presidential approval ratings.
If someone is looking for the week that proved a perfect example of how the 113th Congress functions, it doesn’t get much better than last week. The Senate beat back a filibuster to pass a popular bill, with every Democrat joined by a handful of Republicans.
Every few days, a new poster child for the horror of Obamacare comes along, the person who just loves their insurance plan but has been told it's being cancelled. Pretty much every time, their story turns out to be full of holes—the plan they're on is actually junk insurance, they'd be able to get better and cheaper coverage through the exchanges, and so on (here's the latest). But without a doubt, this small group of people (and not, say, the millions who are getting free or low-cost coverage for the first time) have become the momentary face of the Affordable Care Act, at least in the mainstream news media's eyes.
So now the administration is scrambling to deal with this political problem, and here's the latest twist:
“Today, 47 million Americans struggling to put food on the table will have to make do with less,” began the emailed press release from House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office. The statement lamented the $5 billion cut to food-stamp benefits that took effect November 1, rolling back a 13.6 percent expansion to the program that was part of the 2009 stimulus package. The cuts leave “participants with just $1.40 to spend per meal,” the press release continued, adding that House Republicans want to subject food stamps to more cuts in the future.
But before Democrats completely rewrite the history of this body blow to the poor, a review of the facts would be in order. The seeds of this current food-stamp cut were sown by multiple deals made when Democrats held both chambers of Congress and the White House.
When he wins New York City's mayoral election today, Bill de Blasio will have succeeded in branding himself the next big thing in progressive politics. But it remains to be seen which de Blasio shines through over the next four years: the former Hillary Clinton operative who admires neoliberal Governor Andrew Cuomo and is friendly with the real-estate industry, or the activist lefty who got arrested protesting the closure of a Brooklyn hospital and has promised to take on income inequality and the NYPD's sprawling anti-terrorism apparatus.
Last week’s buzzword was “kludge,” as everyone from Paul Krugman to Michael Lind decided that the Affordable Care Act was a perfect example of “What’s Wrong With America.” It’s an argument that Steven Tales made recently in an important essay at National Affairs.
Like a not very bright seven-year-old with a shiny new toy, the National Review has found an inane talking point to run into the ground. "Republican AGs vs. Obama’s Court-Packing Plan" announces one headline. "House Testimony on D.C. Circuit Court-Packing Plan" says another.
Let’s face it, unless Democrats win back the House in 2014, Obama will soon become a lame duck president. To some degree or another, it is a universal truth that second term presidents turn to foreign policy to burnish their historical legacy. Yet the continuous drip of revelations about the NSA’s vast array of surveillance programs is not only shaping up to be the biggest headache for the Obama administration but potentially, part of its defining legacy. And that is sad. Super sad.
In the last couple of decades, a particular technique of news story construction has become so common that I'm sure you barely notice it as something distinctive. It's the use of a device sometimes referred to as the "exemplar," in which a policy issue is explained through the profile of one individual, whose tale usually begins and ends the story. It's ubiquitous on television news, but print reporters do it all the time as well.
As the Affordable Care Act approaches full implementation, we're seeing a lot of exemplar stories, and I've been noticing one particular type: the story of the person who seems to be getting screwed. If it were true that most Americans were indeed being made worse off by the law, that would be a good thing; we'd learn their stories and get a sense of the human cost of the law. The trouble is that in the real world, there are many more people being helped by the law than hurt by it, and even those who claim to be hurt by it aren't really being hurt at all.
To see how misleading some of these exemplar stories can be, let's take this piece from last night's NBC Nightly News, which uses an exemplar named Deborah Caballaro (sorry if I've misspelled her name), a self-employed realtor from Los Angeles who buys insurance on the individual market:
In my column today, I argue that the healthcare.gov disaster has its roots in the government contracting system, where big projects that go past deadline and over budget is standard operating procedure. There is one particular design flaw, however, that I didn't get a chance to discuss there but is worth noting. My guess is that it wasn't given all that much thought, or at the very least, somebody had what sounded like a good reason at the time to do it the way they did. But the result was that the administration needlessly multiplied the headaches it would have with the rollout and made everyone's experience significantly worse, and it didn't have to be that way.
Yes, the Affordable Care Act website rollout has been a fiasco. And, as always happens when political catastrophe strikes, the wave of bad analogies has rushed in its wake. One in particular that’s gaining ground: Healthcare.gov is for Barack Obama’s presidency what the invasion of Iraq was to George W. Bush’s administration, complete with outraged liberal reactions to it.
Here’s the funny thing: it’s a bad analogy, which could turn out to be accurate … but probably won’t.
Some of the healthcare.gov contractors testifying today.
Today marks the beginning of what will surely be a series of hearings in Congress at which members will fulminate and shake their fists at various people who had responsibility for creating healthcare.gov. It's quite something to see some congressman who's still struggling to figure out how to work the Blackberry his staff gave him asking questions about beta testing and error logs and a bunch of other stuff he doesn't begin to understand. But maybe the weirdest thing is the feeling one gets from the GOP over the last few days, which can be summarized as, "We got 'em now!" They seem to believe that the web site problems are going to provide the deliverance they've been waiting for after the political disaster of the government shutdown.
Here's a little prediction: Feigned Republican outrage over the ACA web site is going to be just as effective in reversing the GOP's current fortunes as feigned Republican outrage over Benghazi was in undoing Barack Obama's re-election bid.