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 the "Dems In Disarray!" headlines they keep in storage for just this purpose.
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."
Oh please. Everyone just chill out.
It's incredible how often reporters and pundits proclaim that what's happening this week is the most important political development in years, and the balance of political advantage today will remain just as it is indefinitely into the future. Then a few weeks or months later things change, and they forget about what they said before, declaring once again that today's situation is how things will be forevermore. Not long ago, people were saying that the fact that Obama couldn't get a congressional vote authorizing a bombing campaign in Syria had crippled his presidency. Then the Republicans shut down the government, and people were saying they wouldn't win another election in our lifetimes. That's just in the last few months. And now people are saying that Obama's second term, which has three years left to go, is an unrecoverable disaster.
So let's try to see things from a less panicky perspective. The rollout has been a mess, but it's important to remember that this period is all a preparation for the actual implementation of the law. Nothing that's happening now is permanent. People have gotten cancellation notices, but no one has lost their coverage. The website sucked when it debuted, it sucks slightly less now, but there's still lots of time for people to sign up for plans that take effect next year. And if things aren't working properly by December, they'll probably extend the open enrollment period to a point at which everything's working. That's a hassle, sure. But you can't call the Affordable Care Act a failure until it takes effect and does or does not achieve its goals. That would be like calling your team's season a failure because they lost a couple of pre-season games.
A few Democrats will probably vote today for the Republican bill that purports to address the problem of cancellations but it's an attempt to gut the entire ACA. That's because they're cowards and fools, who think that they can protect themselves from a momentary political headwind by rushing into the Republicans' arms. And you know what will happen? Nothing. You can just add this vote to the 47 prior ones repealing the law; it'll have the same impact. It won't ever get to the Senate, and even if it did it wouldn't ever be signed by the President. It isn't even worth paying attention to.
Here's what's going to happen. The administrative fix Obama announced yesterday will temporarily staunch the political bleeding. But it will have very little effect on the actual insurance market, which is a good thing. In some states, insurance commissioners won't let the insurance companies continue to sell the junk plans we've been talking about. In others, insurers won't want to go back and re-offer the plans they cancelled. Some of the people with the junk plans will end up keeping them, but most of them will end up going to the exchanges. Many will find that they can get subsidies, or even without them find an affordable plan. Some may find that they're paying more for a plan that offers real insurance. Those in the latter group will grumble, but it won't be front-page news anymore, because the media are extraordinarily fickle, and they've already told that story.
Over the next year, the rest of the law will be implemented. There may be problems here and there, but overall it will probably go reasonably well. There will be plenty of things Democrats can point to in order to convince people that it was a good idea, like the fact that now nobody can be denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition, or the fact that millions of people who couldn't afford coverage or were denied before now have it. There will also be things Republicans will say to try to convince people it was a terrible idea, like the fact that premiums didn't plummet, and health care is still expensive, and Obamacare didn't give every little girl a pony.
And what else will happen in the next year? Other things. The economy may get worse, or it may get better. There may be a foreign crisis. Controversies we can't yet anticipate will emerge, explode, then disappear. A young singer may move her posterior about in a suggestive manner, causing a nation to drop everything and talk about nothing else for a week. We might start talking about immigration reform again. There's going to be another budget battle. In other words, all sorts of things could affect the next election, and the election after that.
So yes, this is a difficult period for President Obama, and for the Affordable Care Act. But everyone needs to take a deep breath and remember that things will change. They always do.
Paul Waldman is a contributing editor for the Prospect and the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.