Is there any accountability in American politics? Is there any cost to those who say things that turn out not to be true and then, when their fabrications or false predictions are exposed, calmly move on to concocting new claims as if they had never made the old ones?
The fact that the Affordable Care Act hit its original goal this week of signing up more than 7 million people through its insurance exchanges ought to be a moment of truth. It ought to give everyone pause over how reckless the opponents of change have been in making instant judgments and outlandish charges.
When the health care website went haywire last fall, conservatives were certain this technological failure meant the entire reform was doomed. If you doubt this, try a Google search keyed to that period relating the word “doomed” to the health care law.
The general public was wiser. A CNN poll in November found a majority (54 percent to 45 percent) saying that the problems facing the law “will eventually be solved.” Political moderates took this view by 55 percent to 43 percent, independents by 50 percent to 48 percent. Only Republicans — by a whopping 72 percent to 27 percent — and conservatives (by 66-33) thought the law could never be fixed.
Their representatives in D.C., moderate conservatives as well as Tea Party loyalists, followed the base’s lead. In mid-November, for example, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, told Fox News flatly that the law is “destined to fail,” “fundamentally flawed” and “not ready for prime time.” House Speaker John Boehner predicted dire outcomes before the website fiasco. He repeatedly insisted, as in July, that “even the Obama administration knows the train wreck will only get worse.”
This attitude affected more neutral observers. Forbes magazine posted a piece on Nov. 22 under the headline: “What to do if and when Obamacare collapses.” The op-ed article modestly acknowledged that “it’s too soon to write an epitaph for Obamacare,” but then barged forward, since “its crises are piling up so fast that one has to begin looking ahead.”
At this point, the etiquette of commentary would typically require a “to be sure” paragraph, as in: To be sure, the law could still face other problems, etc. OK. After all, every successful program, even well-established ones such as Medicare, Social Security and food stamps, confronts ongoing challenges.
So let’s say it out loud: The ACA is doing exactly what its supporters said it would do. It is getting health insurance to millions (right now, it looks like about 10 million). And it’s working especially well in places such as Kentucky where state officials threw themselves behind the cause. Those who want to repeal the law will have to admit they are willing to deprive these people, or some large percentage of them, of insurance.
Too many conservatives would prefer not to say what they really believe: They don’t want the federal government to spend the significant sums of money needed to get everyone covered. Admitting this can sound cruel, so they insist that their objections are to the ACA’s alleged unworkability, or to “a Washington takeover of the health system” (which makes you wonder what they think of Medicare, a far more centralized program). Or they peddle isolated horror stories that fact-checkers usually discover are false or misleading.
Thus the moment of truth, about the facts and about our purposes. From now on, will there be more healthy skepticism about conservative claims against the ACA? Will there be tougher interrogation of their next round of apocalyptic predictions? Will we finally be honest about the real argument: Do we or do we not want to put in the effort and money it takes to guarantee all Americans health insurance? If we do — and we should — let’s get on with doing it the best way we can.
E.J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post (firstname.lastname@example.org).