The White House responses to the Obamacare debacle get worse each day. On Thursday, an increasingly flustered Jay Carney proclaimed that low enrollment in the exchanges “was always going to be the case.” Like so much of what he says, this is misleading. Later in the day CBS reported that as few as 6 people signed up on day one, followed by only a few hundred in the next few days, a pace that would deliver a fraction of the expected enrollees.

Jay Carney- (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Jay Carney. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

The administration put out targets for the number of people to be enrolled in the exchanges. The administration had expected about 500,000 enrollees by the end of October. By March 2014, that number was supposed to get to 7 million. The entire point of the exchanges was to get lots and lots of healthy, younger people signed up to subsidize the rest. As Bill Clinton acknowledged, it’s only going to work if a lot of young people sign up. Otherwise, you wind up with a big adverse selection problem made worse by the hassle it takes for someone healthy and skeptical about buying insurance to sign up.

It is understandable then that Democrats are starting to panic. The Hill reports:

“Senate Democrats vented their frustrations over the faulty rollout of the Affordable Care Act in a meeting Thursday with White House chief of staff Denis McDonough and other senior officials. ‘There’s a lot of frustration, everywhere,’ Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said after the meeting. . . . Democratic senators facing reelection in 2014 were some of the most vocal critics. One lawmaker described Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) as visibly ‘agitated.’ “

According to the report, other Dems who blasted the administration included Mark Warner (Va.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) and Claire McCaskill (Mo.). Having been burned by dishonest statements already, it is understandable that some of them weren’t buying promises that everything would be ship-shape in a month:

“They hope to have good things to tell us as they get those fixes in place,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). “I don’t think there is confidence by anybody in the room. This is more of a ‘show me’ moment. We were all confident the system was going to be up and operating Oct. 1 and now we are not confident until it’s real.”

No wonder a dozen Democrats may sign on to a bill to “let people keep their health plans, even if they fall short of the requirements set under the new law.” If so, there may be 60 votes to undo a significant portion of the bill — the ability to herd unwilling people from the individual insurance market into the exchanges. At that point, the solvency of Obamacare becomes even more doubtful.

Healthcare.gov might get fixed in a month. But the awful news coverage it has generated, not to mention criticism and potential amendments by Dems, when combined with the sticker shock may prevent the expected millions from ever signing on. After all, if the product is not great and there may be changes, why spend any time trying to sign up?

It will be interesting to see how the left runs interference for the president. On one hand they need to argue that Obamacare could work, but the president simply didn’t run it correctly. On the other hand, this essentially adopts a key critique of the right, namely that this president is uninterested in and/or incompetent when it comes to governance. But Republicans would be wise to elevate the discussion beyond the president and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Minority leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had it exactly right when he said: “The point is, could anybody make it work? I don’t think Albert Einstein could make this thing work. It can’t work. It won’t work.”

At this point liberal pundits seem amazed that the president could be so inattentive and the results so devastating. (“I certainly expected more from the Affordable Care Act, since it is the most  significant piece of social welfare legislation since the 1960s, and an  absolutely crucial piece of our social safety net going forward, ” writes Joe Klein.) But then, journalistic skepticism has been in short supply through much of the administration. The mainstream media and liberal punditocracy would do well to consider more seriously conservative critics’ warnings about the shortcomings of this president and the policies he selects.

That in turn suggests during this window of enhanced credibility that the GOP get cracking on something that would work as an alternative, a few simple limited changes that would promote health-care insurance competition, promote Medicaid reform and level the tax playing field for individual insurance purchasers. I don’t buy that the Republicans should let a thousand flowers bloom; they need evidence they are the party of responsible and effective government that will improve people’s lives. They only do that by rallying around a single concept, if not a full-blown bill.

Republicans would be wise to insist on information about the Obamacare debacle, expose the problems, keep an eagle eye on the privacy issues and take up the side of those hurt by Obamacare. Given that they were much more accurate than liberals in predicting this mess, they have a unique opening to gain some credibility back on this issue and the expansion of the welfare state more generally.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.