Littwin: Obamacare is the story of the year (and of next year, too)
December 29, 2013
Whatever Time said about the liberalish new pope or Glenn Greenwald tells us about Edward Snowden's NSA revelations, the most important story of the year — and of all recent years — obviously was Obamacare. It was not even close.
And we can be pretty sure that barring any real calamity, Obamacare also will be the most important story of 2014. It has to be. Obamacare either will work or it won't work or, more likely, it will work and not work. But whatever it does — and no one can be sure — it will be the most compelling story as we approach the November elections, which could change the balance of power in Washington.
As of today, moderate Democrats are of course running scared. It's obvious that 2013 was a pretty bad year. But it was a worse year for Obamacare. The disastrous rollout would scare anyone. President Barack Obama's falling approval numbers are pretty scary, too. We'll see how Democrats react by watching our own Sen. Mark Udall, who wants to be seen as lightly tapping on the brakes, even as he hopes Obamacare is running smoothly before the election.
Republicans, meanwhile, have no idea what to do, except for those who are determined never to sign on to any form of Obamacare. They have nothing so much as certainty. How else do you say cutting unemployment benefits help the unemployed? Those who might want to compromise — the ones who, say, agreed to the recent budget deal and probably will agree to a debt-ceiling deal — won't get the same license on Obamacare. That might be the smart thing to do. But it's not the Ted Cruz thing to do, or do you see an Obamacruz in the making?
The Great Debate is at the center of everything. It has come to define this sad period of American dysfunction — either directly (website failure) or indirectly (government shutdown), either willfully or just out of habit. Giving in isn't part of the equation.
The divide is, of course, more about Obama than it is about Obamacare, and liberals have retreated from calling the law Obamacare for that very reason. But I think calling it Obamacare is far more apt than calling it the Affordable Care Act.
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It's in the name, in fact, that all the ironies abound. A so-called radical president, who isn't at all, radical champions a so-called radical health-care reform plan that isn't remotely radical. Every compromise in passing the program made it worse. And every attempt to block the program has challenged its effectiveness. And so the opponents called it Obamacare because they had to insist Obama — and his troubled program — are failing, whether they are or not.
The funny thing is that Democrats find themselves handcuffed by a plan that doesn't nearly do as much as it should to resolve all the problems. But it does do one thing — it makes the case that everyone should have health care. It's an easy argument to make. It's one Democrats have to embrace. If Obamacare falters, it won't do any good to have been a sometime supporter. Either you were for it or against it. I wonder if Udall, who was very much for it, gets that.
But it's not like there's any sure path for Republicans, either. They've put themselves in the impossible position of defending an indefensible health-care delivery system. And now, approximately 2 million people are enrolled in Obamacare. That number will grow. And if there are more moving deadlines on enrollments and mandates Republicans can complain, but at some point they have to actually come up with an alternative. It's hard to see one that is all that different from Obamacare. But without being, well, radically different, how do you sell the years of Republican obstruction?
My guess is that Obamacare is — to coin a phrase — too big to fail. And it's too important to fail. It will have to fail irredeemably before Obama would give up on it. And even if Republicans take the Senate and keep the House in 2014, they'd still be at least two years away from having any chance of getting rid of the program. And would that be too late?
The problem with fixing Obamacare now is the very thing that plagues it. There can't be any real compromise. The reason the name Obamacare is right is that the argument has never been about affordable care. Everyone knows we pay way too much for health care and that, as a nation, we need to fix it. There are different ways to do it, but it has to be done. And everyone knows, too, that we have reached a point in history where it is no longer acceptable to have millions of people uninsured. It's economically bad. And it's morally wrong.
We know, too, what we're really fighting about. After two elections, the fight is still about Obama. It was clear all those years ago when Obama was a young pup of a president and was trying to get the Olympics in Chicago. And when the Chicago bid failed and went to Rio instead, there were those who literally cheered. It was astonishing — Americans rooting against America because Obama was the president.
Now people root for or against Obamacare. And in 2014, it will be on its way to success. Or not. It's not just the story of last year, this year or the next. It's the story of a country divided.
Mike Littwin's column runs Sundays in The Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post, he currently writes for coloradoindependent.com.
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