I want to follow up on what I wrote Friday about those who are deciding that because of a) web site problems and b) the largely manufactured controversy over people who have one private insurance plan but now face the unfathomable horror of moving to a different private insurance plan, the Affordable Care Act is an unrecoverable disaster that has destroyed Barack Obama's second term. I'm sensing that this is about to move into a new phase of inane speculation that we should think about before it starts.
It's sometimes said that you can stimulate the economy by burying a bunch of money, then paying people to go dig it up. It may not be all that productive or useful in the long run, but it'll get the job done. You might think that's what the conservative billionaires who funded the outside campaigns to defeat Barack Obama and other Democrats in 2012 were up to when they poured millions upon millions of dollars into an ultimately futile campaign. And now we're finally getting an idea of just how much money there was.
Ah, now this is what politics is supposed to be like: Ruthless Republicans, gleeful at the prospect that they might increase the net total of human suffering. Timorous Democrats, panicking at the first hint of political difficulty and rushing to assemble a circular firing squad. And the news media bringing out its "Dems In Disarray!" headlines that have been used so many times before. The problems of the last couple weeks "could threaten Democratic priorities for years," says Ron Brownstein. It's just like Hurricane Katrina, says the New York Times (minus the 1,500 dead people, I guess they mean, though they don't say so). "On the broader question of whether Obama can rebuild an effective presidency after this debacle," says Dana Milbank, "it's starting to look as if it may be game over." Ruth Marcus also declares this presidency all but dead: "Can he recover? I'm sorry to say: I'm not at all confident."
So today, trying to stem the tide of hand-waving and panic that reminded us all of how Democrats have traditionally acted, Barack Obama announced that people who have health insurance plans they bought in the individual market but don't meet the standards of the Affordable Care Act may get to keep those plans. So how should we feel about this?
On the most basic level, it's not a good thing. Any time someone stays on a junk insurance plan instead of entering the larger risk pool of the exchanges, that pool is weakened. Having said that, the specifics of what Obama proposed do seem designed to minimize the damage.
And to think, we actually thought the hard part was over.
At times like this, with the Obama administration weathering yet another controversy regarding the stumbling beginnings of the Affordable Care Act, it's useful to remind ourselves that this too shall pass. I've been plenty critical of how healthcare.gov has been handled (see here, or here, or here), but eventually it will get fixed, at least to the point at which it works well enough. Likewise, the fears now being experienced by people with individual insurance policies will, by and large, turn out to be unfounded. There will be some who have to pay more than they've been paying, but in almost all cases they'll be getting more too.
But there's no doubt that this is an escalating problem for the administration. The person who got sold a cheap insurance policy on the individual market because the insurer was confident that either a) they probably wouldn't get sick any time soon, or b) the policy was so stingy (whether the customer knew it or not) that the insurer wouldn't have to pay anything even if they did, has now become the victim whom all agree must be made whole. We're all talking endlessly about Obama's "If you like your current plan, you can keep it" pledge, but the fact is that if you have one of these junk insurance plans, you only like it if you haven't had to use it. But no matter—the people on these plans (and not, say, people who are finally getting Medicaid, because they're poor so who cares) are now the only people that matter. Congress is obsessed with them, the news media is obsessed with them, and Something Must Be Done.
The administration is clearly spooked, and so are Democrats. But everyone needs to take a breath and ask themselves whether what they do in the next couple of weeks is something they'll be able to live with in a year or five years or twenty years.