There are times when the master politician has to be a master illusionist. And there are too many times when he doesn't fool anybody, perhaps not even himself, and some little Toto reveals the Great and Powerful Oz as just another little man behind the curtain. And the illusion can no longer fool even the long illusioned. Despite a beautiful stage setting like the Rose Garden at the White House, the perfect if artificial lighting, and the usual supporting cast of intellectual munchkins in the merry old land of Washington, singing, dancing, prancing and applauding all around. For no matter how many times the Wizard waves his wand over his Signature Accomplishment, it gets harder and harder to distinguish it from his signature failure. Or wave away the failures still to come -- even as those of the past are decked out in new costumes and billed as glorious successes.
But the show must go on, as it did last week when the chief executive and ringmaster of this star-studded production bid a long overdue adieu to his loyal servant and scapegoat, the Hon. Kathleen Sebelius, now happily former secretary of Health and Human Services, before swinging around to welcome her successor, the lucky bureaucrat who now inherits this royal and continuing mess.
But one of the qualifications for the job of Great and Powerful Oz is to put the best face on even the worst of debacles, which the equally Hon. Barack Obama did -- in his by now practiced and ever sonorous way. And so this RMS Titanic of federal bureaucracies sails on, crashing into icebergs every Tuesday and Thursday, changing course with every collision but to no clear avail.
This is the kind of continuing collapse an experienced illusionist will know how to deny no matter how many firewalls on this ship collapse or interior compartments fill with bilge. So last Friday our president, looking straight at the TV camera and an increasingly skeptical nation, hailed the wonders Ms. Sebelius had performed with Obamacare: "Under Kathleen's leadership, her team at HHS turned the corner, got it fixed, got the job done." Mission Accomplished!Don't believe it? Why, said the president, "the final score speaks for itself," which must have been a vague reference to the 7.5 million people signed up for his Signature Debacle at last announcement. What a shiny, splendid, glittering number!
Just don't ask too many pesky questions like, "How many of these folks already had insurance before, but had their policies canceled and will have to pay higher premiums now?" "How many exceptions, delays, waivers, 'protected classes' and escape hatches in general have been necessary to paper over the holes in this tub, and how many are yet to come?" And, perhaps most relevant and troubling of all, "How many of the young and healthy are signing up for this wondrous program in order to offset the older and sicker being covered, and so keep this whole Rube Goldberg contraption afloat?" Answer: There isn't one. Nobody knows, or at least dares not guess. Better to just dance and prance around the wonderful wizard who's brought all this to pass.
Surely someone as intelligent as our president can see through all the hooey he feels obliged to peddle, but being a master politician, i.e., a Wonderful Wizard, entails certain sacrifices, beginning with one's own dignity. After all, the president's slightly exaggerated version of events, to quote a character in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, is "merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative."
And yet some of us can't help but remember, indelibly, other highlights of Kathleen Sebelius' unfortunate tenure at HHS, like the time last October when she was in the midst of telling a congressional hearing that Obamacare's website hadn't crashed at all, appearances very much to the contrary. "It is functional," she explained, "but at a very slow speed and very low reliability, and has continued to function." Even as giant screens all around the hearing room trained on that very website continued to show its unwavering announcement: "The system is down at the moment. We are experiencing technical difficulties and hope to have them resolved soon." Soon turned out to be weeks, if not months.
In the Rose Garden last week, everything was coming up roses, of course. And like roses, Obamacare requires lots of fertilizer to produce those pretty blooms, however illusory.
It's quite a show. It's just not much of a health-insurance program. Somebody get a hook and repeal-and-replace this farce, cutting out the army of patronage used mainly to expand the Medicaid rolls in the guise of a new government program. And save those of its features that always did have bipartisan support, like letting 20-somethings stay on their folks' insurance till they're almost 30-somethings, and making sure prior health problems don't keep an American from getting some kind of health insurance.
But would those simple fixes be too down-to-earth for this master illusionist, even as his latest and greatest illusion fades?