Does an $8 million advertising campaign really make Obamacare into the Iraq War?

April 23, 2013

"Obamacare is the Iraq of the Obama administration," tweets Ben Domenech.

This is a wonderful piece of Twitter ephemera -- both in its implicit view of what the Iraq war was, and what Obamacare is. But the link is even better. It goes to a piece Peter Suderman wrote for Reason magazine. The headline? "Obama Administration to Spend Another $8 Million Marketing ObamaCare."

Yep, that was definitely the problem in Iraq.

And that's really all the piece is. "The Hill reports that [HHS] just announced that it signed an agreement to spend another $8 million—with the option to spend more—further promoting the exchanges," Suderman writes. Then he takes out the knife:

I’ll give the folks at HHS this: They could probably use some effective marketing. But maybe they ought to consider scaling back a bit, and work more on trying to raise awareness about the law's benefits with Sen. Max Baucus? When you’ve already spent $3 million promoting ObamaCare’s exchanges, and yet the senator who claims to have written the bill on which the law was based thinks those exchanges are about to be a “huge train wreck,” you kind of have to wonder whether the agency is really getting much value out of its marketing budget.

The particular irony of Suderman's critique is that Baucus's specific concern was that there would be a 2014 "train wreck" because the Obama administration wasn't doing enough to advertise and explain the exchanges. The announcement that it will spend more money to advertise and explain the exchanges is, in part, a way of responding to Baucus's concerns.

But Suderman presents it as somehow invalidated by Baucus's concerns. It's as if I said you weren't working hard enough, and you decided to work more hours, and the guy in the next cubicle wondered whether working more hours really made any sense given my belief that you're not working hard enough. Actually, working more hours is exactly what I was asking you to do.

A contributor to the human, economic, and political disaster that was the Iraq War was the flawed information loop that the war's supporters bought into early on. The only information that was credible to them was information that supported the war. The only news they believed was news that suggested the war was going well. The only strategy they developed was a strategy for a swift victory and smooth transition to democracy.

I don't think Obamacare will have an easy first year. But conservative commentary on the law is caught in an increasingly destructive information loop. The only information that is credible to them is information showing the law will be a disaster. The only news they believe is news that makes Obamacare look bad. The only strategy they've developed is one for when Obamacare collapses under the weight of its failures. That's how you get things like Domenech's tweet off of the thin gruel of Suderman's post -- it makes sense in the larger context conservatives have built around the law.

But if this is the future conservatives are expecting, what will they do when the reality of the Affordable Care Act is more mixed -- when some parts of the law are proving troublesome or even disastrous, but when the law is also insuring 10 million Americans, and helping tens of millions more buy better insurance, and protecting many from discrimination based on preexisting conditions?

A central lesson of Iraq is that you can't plan off bad information. Reading conservative commentary on Obamacare does not make me confident that they've learned it.

Further reading

- About the Obamacare 'train wreck'.

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Dylan Matthews · April 23, 2013