Jayne: Since the beginning, Obamacare is failure of politics

By Greg Jayne, Columbian opinion editor

Published:

 
photoGreg Jayne, Opinion page editor

Phew! I’m glad that’s over.

Now that Obamacare has passed its first enrollment deadline, now that 7 million people have signed up, now that the program has established some footing without collapsing under its own weight …now we can move on, right? Phew! Count me among the 53 percent of Americans in a recent poll who said they are tired of hearing about the law. And I get paid to read about this stuff.

Oh, I realize it’s Pollyannaish to hope that we’re now in a post-Obamacare world. I realize the anger — much like the law itself — is not going anywhere. But we have passed a milestone.

The 2014 enrollment deadline for the health care overhaul came and went last week. The law survived vitriol from opponents and botched website rollouts (Oregon’s state-run exchange still isn’t working) and deadline changes dictatorially imposed by President Obama to attract a flurry of enrollees on the final day.

And through it all I can’t help but think that Obamacare is a gross failure of American politics.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t know if it’s a gross failure of American policy. That’s still to be determined. I have heard the arguments from opponents, the assertions that Obamacare is going to hamper the economy for generations, that it further entrenches a welfare state, and that it signals the death of the American way of life. But I also have heard the arguments that Obamacare provides health insurance for many who previously could not afford it and that it protects those who have pre-existing conditions.

As Jonathan Cohn wrote in The New Republic, “The Affordable Care Act has unleashed a great many changes — some good, some bad, some in between. And it’s going to be a long time before there’s enough evidence to assess them carefully.”

So, yeah, as a matter of policy, the verdict will be years or generations in the making. But as a matter of politics, it is one of the biggest failures in memory.

No Republican support

You see, the problem with Obamacare is that is was passed in 2010 with the support of no Republicans in the House of Representatives or the Senate. Think about that. The 111th United States Congress included 219 Republicans, and not a single one of them could be persuaded to support the law.

Democrats, who at the time had control of the House, the Senate, and the presidency, certainly had the right to pass any law they wished. But having the ability to do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should, and that failure will be Obama’s lasting legacy. That failure will be a lesson for all future presidents.

Obama came to office after a scant 46 months as a United States senator, many of which were spent running for president. He arrived with charisma aplenty but precious little understanding of political wrangling and the ways of Washington. And you can’t help but contrast him with Lyndon Baines Johnson, who ascended to the presidency after spending 12 years in the House, 12 in the Senate, and nearly three as vice president.

Policies aside, Johnson knew how to get things done. His legendary powers of persuasion relied upon what came to be known as “The Johnson Treatment” — he would corner a legislator and prey upon their weaknesses until they capitulated to his point of view.

If only Obama had that. If only he had come to office with more than charm and flowery rhetoric and promises of hope and change. If only he had recognized the need for a little bipartisan support for Obamacare, enlisting one or five or a dozen Republicans in the passage of the bill.

In other words, I can understand the anger that lingers over the health care overhaul. I can understand why Republicans have voted some 50 times to repeal the law or defund portions of it, even if I question the political wisdom of such intransigence.

If Democrats had recognized the need to engage Republicans four years ago, perhaps the rhetoric over Obamacare would have dissipated by now. And perhaps we could be working to improve the law instead of just talking about it.