No, Obamacare's problems aren't a threat to liberalism

Matthew Yglesias this week has jumped on one of the more discreditable bandwagons of Obamacare revisionism: the notion that the failure of the enrollment website,, has done near permanent damage to progressive principles. 

A lot of that has been going around since the website's rotten launch Oct. 1. John Dickerson, Yglesias' stablemate at, has said that the flub has made Republicans "look like sages."

At the New Republic, editor Franklin Foer wrote bluntly about "Obamacare's Threat to Liberalism," asserting that the failure to launch the Affordable Care Act "impeccably" has destroyed the public's faith in liberal competence and therefore their willingness to entrust liberals with an expanded government role. 

Can we take a pill here? 

Yes, the rollout of the website has been a botch. But the most important reforms of the Affordable Care Act are already embedded in the American healthcare system: prohibitions on medical underwriting (that is, exclusions or premium hikes based on pre-existing conditions), limits on insurer overhead, minimum benefit standards. Rolling any of that back will be impossible--indeed, Republicans are scarcely even talking about it any more. These are all progressive principles. 

As for the idea that the launch of the act has somehow fallen short of the standards established by the New Deal or the Great Society, that owes much more to myth-making and the fog of history than to reality. 

Start with Social Security. As I reported in my book about the New Deal, its drafters envisioned the program as a universal government pension; by the time the bill had passed, budget cutters (mainly Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau) had sliced domestic and farmworkers out of the program--depriving the very neediest segments of the working population of its protection.

Moreover, because the Social Security payroll tax began to be collected in 1937 but the money wasn't returned to the economy until the first retirement checks went out in 1940 , the tax contributed to a severe recession in 1938.

You can't botch a rollout any worse than causing a recession. A nonfunctioning website? Doesn't come close. Many other aspects of the Social Security Act reflected haste, compromise and the imperfections of all human endeavors.

Then there's the rollout of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the New Deal's effort to address a depression in the farm belt that by 1933 had been going on for more than a decade.

Congress dithered so long before passing the law that it missed the 1933 growing season. As a result, thousands of acres of cotton had to be plowed under to alleviate an oversupply that was depressing prices. Worse was to follow--the mandated slaughter of 6 million piglets and 200,000 pregnant sows for the same reason.

That heartrending spectacle almost destroyed the public's support for New Deal agriculture policy and placed the new agriculture secretary, Henry Wallace, under pressure that Kathleen Sebelius would surely understand. A member of a farm family himself, Wallace grumbled that voters seemed to think that farmers "should fund a sort of old-folks home for hogs and keep them around indefinitely as barnyard pets." But he understood that the slaughter was the worst possible advertisement for a new policy, and to his relief it never needed repeating.

None of these events caused lasting doubt about the programs specifically or progressive principles in general. None prevented a continuing reassessment that has only strengthened the nation's social fabric over the decades--Social Security has been reappraised, strengthened and expanded consistently by Democratic and Republican administrations alike. For all the loose talk about its fiscal issues, no one talks about a substantial rollback of its provisions.

The Affordable Care Act is surely destined to undergo the same process. Republicans and conservatives will surely jump on every patch and tweak--not to mention major repairs--as evidence that the whole thing should be scrapped. Let's see them point to a single major piece of legislation that has ever been free of such needed fixes.

The time is far too early for panic, much less for bemoaning the end of liberal reform. The tendency of progressives and Democrats to run away from Obamacare is merely a display of political cravenness in the short term. It's their behavior that undermines progressive ideals, not the act itself or even its poor execution. If they would stand up for it, its liberal principles would do just fine.

Reach me at @hiltzikm on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or by email. MORE FROM MICHAEL HILTZIK

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