The press loves a good metaphor. The New York Times thinks the Obamacare rollout is President Obama’s Katrina. (“The disastrous rollout of his health care law not only threatens the rest of his agenda but also raises questions about his competence in the same way that the Bush administration’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina undermined any semblance of Republican efficiency.”)
Matt Continetti thinks it is Iran-contra. (“It’s his Iran-contra scandal: a complicated and controversial policy dispute that involves deception, a hostile Congress, and the bludgeoning of presidential credibility.”)
On one level, these were second-term disasters that knocked the bottom out of the president’s approval. But the more one thinks about it, the more it becomes apparent that the events were quite different.
The Obamacare rollout would be like Katrina if Obamacare was a natural and not man-made disaster and if President Bush had told New Orleans’ 9th Ward everything would be fine and/or if he later denied giving citizens bad information. (Can you imagine George W. Bush saying, “I’m discovering that a hurricane can be complicated”?)
Obamacare might be like Iran-contra if the president not Oliver North had devised the transfer of arms to the Contras, told the country otherwise, then denied doing so and finally said that “there is no doubt that the way I put that forward unequivocally ended up not being accurate.”
In other words, Obama created Obamacare, knew about its impact on the market for individual insurance, represented otherwise and then confessed he didn’t fully understand the entire undertaking. Obama was the guy who made Obamacare possible. For all the criticism, Bush was never accused of creating the hurricane or breaking the levees; President Reagan was not shown to have been aware of, let alone devised, the “contra” part of Iran-contra. Moreover, Obama designed his presidency around the health-care legislation; certainly neither Bush nor Reagan had made their botched efforts central features of their presidencies.
There really isn’t a very good analogy for Obamacare in large part because no president ever jammed through a mammoth program on a party-line vote that was too big — and failed. Obamacare was the great accomplishment, not a sideshow scandal for this president. It is for this reason that the collapse of Obamacare has such enormous implications for the Democratic Party and the left in ways that Katrina and Iran-contra did not.
The future of conservatism did not hinge on either debacle during the GOP presidents’ terms. But Obamacare embodies the essence of big-government liberalism and the qualities that conservatives cite to indict the growing welfare state. It exceeds government’s capacity. It has too many unintended consequences. It is too disruptive of the lives of ordinary Americans. It presume to know what is good for people, replacing individual choice with government dictate.
It is in this context, then, that the president’s efforts to prevaricate are comprehensible, albeit not justified. He certainly has a credibility problem, but big-government liberalism has a viability problem. No other president has so permanently threatened the philosophical underpinning of his own side. In that, there is no Obamacare comparison that does it justice.