There’s a legend that after Hernan Cortes and his crew landed on the shores of the New World, Cortes ordered that their boats be burned. The only way they would be able to get back to Spain would be to conquer the land, giving them the resources to build new boats. With necessity at their backs, his band of adventurers managed to conquer all of Mexico.
It’s not clear if this story is actually true, but it’s nonetheless beloved by motivational speakers. The last two weeks of political paralysis have been an excellent illustration of why you shouldn’t model your negotiation strategy on a guy who’s mostly famous for slaughtering strangers.
The state insurance exchanges aren’t working, Obamacare is in jeopardy, and Democrats are casting around for a way to blame this on Republicans. The answer they have settled on: It’s their fault because Republican governors did not set up exchanges.
Think about what they are actually saying: “We passed a law that was so incredibly fragile that it was destined to fail unless all the state governments controlled by the party that opposed this law worked hard to make the system a success.”
And why did they expect this to happen? The answer boils down to this: “After we burn the boats, everyone’s supposed to band together to fight the Aztecs!”
I’ve long criticized the health-care law for being a Rube Goldberg Policy Machine: There are dozens of pieces that all have to work perfectly. If one of them fails, the whole apparatus breaks down and the individual insurance market spirals toward death. That seemed risky to me, especially when the law was passed over fervent opposition — a fervent opposition that was smugly told that “elections have consequences,” without anyone apparently considering that future elections might have different consequences.
But in this view, the Rube Goldberg quality is actually a plus, because after all, if we do something that might break the insurance market unless Republicans enthusiastically cooperate, they’ll have to enthusiastically cooperate.
This is … what’s the technical term? Right, insane.
Start with the fact that the state exchanges — what we would have had if the Republican governors and legislatures had cooperated — aren’t all in such great shape, either. Don’t get me wrong; some of them are doing very well. But some aren’t really working at all, and in others the results are … unclear. And that’s in blue states where the governor and the legislature were hugely enthusiastic about this program and are going all out to make it work. As anyone who has ever implemented a new program (corporate or government) can tell you, one of the biggest hurdles is getting people who don’t care about your program, or who actively oppose it, to make their piece work. Even if they’re trying in good faith, they have neither your enthusiasm nor your deep grasp of the internal logic. In the best-case scenario, it’s not their No. 1 priority; when it competes for resources with stuff they really care about, it tends to get the second-string people and budget. This is one reason that promising pilot projects often fail when they’re rolled out to the larger organization—and one of the most important things that a corporate innovator has to do is to evangelize his program so that other departments get as enthusiastic as he is.
The Obama administration was not in a position to evangelize the president’s health-care program to Republican governors. If the law absolutely required that those governors be as enthusiastic about implementing a state exchange as the folks in the administration, then it was a bad law that should never have been passed, and the Democrats made a grave mistake that could destroy the nation’s insurance market.
After the boat-burning failed the first time, leaving it weeks from its debut without a working computer system, the administration seems to have decided that what was needed was simply a larger bonfire: Launch the nonworking system, because after all, once you’ve gone live, the potential catastrophe would be nearly upon us, which would somehow force those inside and outside the administration to somehow bring order out of the chaos they had created.
But Republicans should make this work! It’s the right thing to do! That is, of course, debatable. But aside from that, this is magical thinking — as magical as the Tea Partiers who responded, when I pointed out that the shutdown was costing them the support they’d need to retake the Senate and the White House and actually get some policy making done, that this was all the fault of the liberal media, which was just repeating administration talking points.