When Jon Stewart and "Saturday Night Live" turn their left-leaning barbs in the direction of the Obama administration, it's clear something has gone monumentally haywire in Washington. The massive failure of healthcare.gov to function, leaving millions unable to search for Affordable Care Act-created health insurance exchanges, is an unspinnable disaster.
"The whole point of websites is to design them so that it's nearly impossible to not sign up for something," TV comedian/commentator Stewart declared this week. "Every time I go on Amazon, there's a 40 percent chance I'll mistakenly overnight myself six seasons of 'Night Court.' It's just the way it's designed."
And from "SNL" cast member Cecily Strong: "You can't campaign on the fact that millions don't have health care and then be surprised that millions don't have health care. How could you not be ready? That's like 1-800-Flowers getting caught off-guard by Valentine's Day."
As we write this, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the nominal architect of Obamacare's rollout, still has a job. Tomorrow, who knows? Americans need to remember two things, though.
Obamacare is not healthcare.gov and healthcare.gov is not Obamacare. The ACA's online portal is clearly not ready for prime time, and may not be for months, but the website itself is not health care policy -- it's just the digital signup sheet. We have scattered, preliminary evidence about the ACA's affordability and accessibility -- and for the most part it isn't good -- but we won't have reliable information about which aspects work and which should be rewritten or dumped entirely until we have a bigger sample size of people who've actually waded in.
Point two: As often and as badly as government screws up, nothing compares with the way it typically screws up the rollout of sweeping new programs.
The introduction on Social Security in 1935 was an unmitigated disaster because so many employers failed to include worker's names and new SSNs in their reports, creating millions of John Does. Syndicated columnist Drew Pearson railed for weeks about the "high-handed bureaucracy" responsible for the chaos.
The 1966 Medicare rollout was also a fiasco because 700,000 eligible seniors refused to sign up, erroneously thinking it meant giving up their Social Security benefits. The 2005 addition of Medicare's prescription drug benefit was plagued by website problems. Then there was the most glitch-riddled rollout of all (perhaps exceeded only by the Obamacare website): income tax. Chicago attorney Charles H. Hamill made headlines in 1915 by complaining one could understand the paperwork only by "consulting a palmist."
The Obama administration richly deserves the chorus of jeers it's hearing over this website disaster but, for now anyway, that's all it is: a website glitch-fest. Other ill-conceived government rollouts have eventually ironed themselves out (although one could make a case against poorly balanced, exemption-riddled, ever-changing U.S. tax laws). The ACA may yet, and probably will, endure.
But given these enrollment problems, along with other unforeseen holes in the health care law, it's impossible to reach any concrete conclusions. We'll know more once the hysteria dies down. Of course, that might take a while.