Joan Walsh is Wrong: Liberals Should Criticize Obamacare Problems

The surest way to lose credibility is to pretend real problems don’t exist.

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One of the things I hate about ideology—left or right—is how easy one’s worldview about politics can transmute into something lazier, dumber, tribalistic and ultimately more concerned with winning than with truth.

Exhibit A: Salon’s Joan Walsh.

I’m pretty sure I’m a liberal—the hate mail I get seems to confirm this—and mostly, I enjoy reading Walsh’s work. She’s an experienced and insightful liberal observer of American politics who is right, I think, more often than she’s wrong. But right now, on the topic of Obamacare’s faltering web sites, she’s wrong.

And make no mistakes: The unveiling of the websites has been kind of disastrous, and Walsh herself has admitted this: “The problems with Healthcare.gov are real, and disturbing, and must be fixed asap,” Walsh wrote in her Monday column. But the bigger problem, she suggested, is that … liberals are discussing quite openly how the problems with Healthcare.gov are real, and disturbing, and must be fixed asap.

“On the one hand, yes, it’s important for Democrats to acknowledge when government screws up, and to fix it,” she wrote. “On the other hand, when liberals rush conscientiously to do that, they only encourage the completely unbalanced and unhinged coverage of whatever the problem may be.”

Oh, bullcrap.

The problem, as Walsh sees it, is that liberal critiques of Obamacare play into Republican hands, give an advantage to people who criticize the web exchanges not to make them better, but to end them entirely. “Does anyone think if the website worked perfectly, dishonest conservatives wouldn’t be pointing to other alleged problems?” she wrote.  And yeah, I guess that kind of stinks—though in the interest of fairness, for many conservatives it really is case that Healthcare.gov’s problems are in fact indicative of the broader problem with universal healthcare itself: It’s just too big and complex an undertaking for government to manage effectively, they say, so pointing to the website problems is an honest critique.

But the alternative to Walsh’s problem is one that damages both the dream of universal healthcare and the Democratic Party—that liberals, in their efforts to deny the GOP a victory, simply deny reality.

What are liberal pundits supposed to do? Stay silent? That would be a noticeable omission. And anyone who tried to tell the public that, no, they’re wrong, that everything’s working just fine, would probably (deservedly) find their reputation in tatters. Even Walsh, who is angry about liberal criticism of the web exchanges, isn’t quite willing to go that far herself.  And well that she doesn’t: The best way to fix something properly is to acknowledge its flaws in the first place.

Liberals, in this case, would do well to learn a painful lesson from the George W. Bush administration. That president and his defenders steadfastly resisted the idea that the Iraq War was increasingly a losing proposition, instead referring to “dead enders” who would be finally defeated any day now. It wasn’t until the country delivered a stunning defeat to the GOP in the 2006 midterm election that Bush fired Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, hired Robert Gates, and implemented the surge that pacified Iraq just enough for America to make a respectful exit. In truth, I’m not sure the national GOP has ever recovered the credibility it lost during that episode.

The lesson? Deal honestly with reality, political folks, or reality will deal with you.

Walsh concludes by quoting Robert Frost, that “a liberal is a man too broad-minded to take his own side in a quarrel.” Liberals should always take their own side in a fight … except when they’re wrong.  Then they should take the side of truth—and get down to fixing the problem.

  • William Voegeli

    Well done, Joel. One problem, though – on the basic substantive question the lazy, dumb, tribalistic, and dishonest Ms. Walsh sounds quite similar to the much more admirable Mr. Mathis. She says, “All the biggest problems with the ACA have to do with its commitment to working mostly through the existing patchwork of private insurance programs. That’s also the only way it could have gotten through Congress
    in 2010, though, so saying I told you so is satisfying but politically irrelevant.” He says, “The Affordable Care Act itself is thousands of pages long; regulations issued to make it work amount to thousands more pages. Employers provide insurance, except for the ones who don’t, in which case private individual buy their own insurance, except for the ones who can’t, who will get subsidies (unless they don’t) and those who can will buy them from state exchanges, except in states that have refused to create them. Add in all the other factors that create price differences in the insurance. Throw in new regulations about who is to be covered—young adults, people with pre-existing conditions—and you’ve got a lot of moving parts. As any engineer can tell you: The more moving parts, the greater the chance of breakdown. Under single-payer, you pay a tax, you get insurance. Simpler.”

  • mclarksn9

    I don’t think she actually said don’t criticize it. I think she just mentioned perspective. The way the pundits obsess about it really makes no sense. Stuff like “drop dead date Dec. 1″ Let me get this right if the website is glitchy post December 1, the ACA is doomed for eternity? This is a long term process. Also if the reporters weren’t obsessing over it breathlessly, do you really think the website would not get fixed – give me a break.

  • Dee J.

    Joan Walsh was spot on! The truth hurts and she’s been at this longer than Klein and she knows what she is talking about. I think Klein and others’ “the sky is falling” mentality is totally over-the-top and frankly ridiculous and everyone will look silly when Obama announces in a week that Healthcare.gov is fully functional again.

  • optikool

    The problem that I have with Liberals and the person that wrote this article is that they didn’t think past the problems they saw in front of them. I believe Joan thought Liberals would have expanded their knowledge about websites, especially one this big, unlike the anarchists on the right that would see this ACA fail. It’s not like healthcare.gov is being run on a WordPress content management system with a MySQL database like say…. this site. If phillymag.com was getting 2 million hits a minute it would crash. Obviously it didn’t help to give the contract to the lowest bidder who would then contract out to probably India. But they decided to follow the norm of all other companies. Does anybody else remember that fiasco at Apple with their new Maps App? I believe what Joan might have been trying to say was Liberals, take a breath and use your brain. Any competent Web application developer could have explained what is really involved with deploying something this massive so that the public was educated the right way rather then allowing the right to speak nonsense that makes it clear they have no understanding of the functionality of a website beyond their Twitter or Facebook page. Also lets not forget there are 26 states that didn’t even setup an exchange. Where did you people think those customers were going to go? Clearly this problem needs to be fixed and no it’s not going to be fixed tomorrow, or the next day or next week or next month. Application development doesn’t work on the same timeline as the 24 hour media cycle and if you think it does, you should go check your facts. But so far from what I’ve heard on multiple news outlets, these people clearly don’t understand how Information Technology works and until they actually go do their homework or get someone that knows what they are talking about, all it is is noise. In any case I support Joan Walsh and don’t stop calling people out when they need to be called out…

  • LOL “your rates will go down”

    The law started with “you have to pass it to see what’s in it.”
    And now it is being conducted with “you have to sign up for the product before you can find out what’s in the product or how much it costs.”

    From start to finish, ObamaCare has been a dishonest endeavor.

    • optikool

      Yeah and people like you ran with it like if you thought you had a clever gotcha when in reality you just missed the context…