The failure of the Healthcare.gov website to operate smoothly has been amply documented in virtually every corner of the corporate media. One of the themes of the coverage, though, is worth unpacking, since it advances an argument that could do profound damage far beyond one particular website or program.
As this story goes, the fate of the enrollment website is not so much about a bungled tech project–it's about government itself.
Very early on, the Washington Post's Dan Balz (10/26/13) wrote that while Barack Obama was an "advocate of big, bold actions to address large and seemingly intractable problems, he has struggled to convince the public that government is equipped to carry out such transformational changes." Balz went on to argue, "The whole episode points to the broader debate that the president has yet to win about the role of government."
A New York Times account (12/1/13) of the internal White House deliberations observed:
Out of a tense meeting grew a frantic effort aimed at rescuing not only the troubled insurance portal and President Obama's credibility, but also the Democratic philosophy that an activist government can solve complex social problems.
The PBS NewsHour structured a debate around the premise that the website problems reveal deep questions about the role of government in society (11/28/13). Anchor Hari Sreenivasan introduced the segment this way:
Now a look at some of the larger issues raised in the ongoing debate over the Affordable Care Act, questions of how deeply a government should involve itself in the personal welfare of its citizens, of individual rights and collective responsibilities, even whether the law's troubled rollout might be seen as a challenge to the viability of the liberal philosophy at its core.
And on CBS's Face the Nation (12/1/13), neocon pundit Bill Kristol mused:
If a bunch of private companies were competing…they would pay a price if the website crashed and people would go to another company. That doesn't happen with the government, which is why government shouldn't run big chunks of our economy like healthcare.
New York Times columnist David Brooks boiled the issue down to a football metaphor on Meet the Press (12/1/13):
I have to say, people are appraising whether this government can work. Can government be nimble? Can it learn from its mistakes? And I would say the website is just a small symptom that is not nimble. Government is like an offensive lineman. It can do something really well. It can do blocking. It can create order. But when you ask government to be a wide receiver, then you're asking it to do things it can't do. And I think we're in a situation like that. We're asking it to do things it can't do. Republicans win elections when Democrats overreach by asking government to do things it can't do.
Indeed, the stakes are enormous. As NBC's Andrea Mitchell said on the same edition of Meet the Press, the White House is "at risk of losing the credibility of government as an agent of change for a generation."
The implication in all of these discussions is that the Affordable Care Act represents some kind of "activist government" intervention to disrupt the normally smooth workings of the private sector.
But that is neither the intent nor the effect of the law. The main purpose of Obamacare is the preservation of the private insurance system; the website functionality that has generated so many headlines is largely due to the fact that a decentralized, means-tested system has to be grafted onto a complex, profit-seeking insurance industry. If the White House was rolling out an actual "big government" healthcare policy options–a public option, or a single-payer system–and there was anything like the current mess, then perhaps this conversation would make some sense.
Indeed, if any part of Obamacare could be considered a government effort at "transformational changes," it might be the expansion of Medicaid, an actual "government-run" system to help the poor. By many accounts, that system is functioning pretty smoothly.
So if anything, the Healthcare.gov rollout disaster is story about the success of a government-run system and the collapse of a quasi-private scheme that was, until the Obama administration, championed by Republicans and conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation.