Last week a senior Washington political journalist told me this story.
According to the journalist’s inside-the-administration sources, a memo went from the Obamacare website developers to the White House several months ago. It laid out in detail the problems with the now-infamous website and recommended – maybe begged is closer to it – the launch’s delay. Otherwise, they said, the website was sure to fail.
Sounds familiar, yes? Here is the twist. The memo was returned to the sender with a one-sentence note scrawled on the top. The note was from senior presidential advisor (who some consider the shadow president) Valery Jarrett. It read, “Failure is not an option.”
That one sentence – “Failure is not an option” – written shortly before the launch of such a hugely complex and sensitive project as the Obamacare website highlights the mix of Greek-tragedy-proportioned hubris and almost adolescent naivety that lies behind the unfolding Obamacare fiasco.
The White House seems to believe that with power all things are possible: We say it (snap of the fingers); it is done.
Throw the vast resources of the federal government at an issue – any issue – and, voila, solution.
Companies — the White House crowd seems to believe — are moved only by greed and so will not serve people’s needs. Private enterprises have the wrong will and, let’s be honest now, insufficient resources. All big tasks – all tasks that matter – belong in the government.
The Obama people show no sense that, unlike the government, companies fail if they fail their customers. Or that delivering “world-class service” – as the president once promised of the Obamacare website experience – is a hard task. It looks easy, because Amazon, American Express, Land’s End and so many others worked so hard and so long to get it right
But behind each successful site is years of tinkering, testing, and revision, in small steps that usually begin with comparatively simple, small sites and build from there. The learning is not just on the part of contractors but within large sections of the companies themselves. Anyone with an iPad can tell from all the app revisions how constant and consuming this process must be.
Anyone can see it, except, it seems, the senior staff of this hubris-blinded White House.
To be clear, I am not talking about the president’s famous declaration, “If you want to keep you insurance, you can keep it.” In that case, the president was talking about a formal feature of the health care law. When it came to how that law was designed, the president and the lawyers, counselors and economists around him were the equivalent of the website developers. They knew that what they were promising could not happen. But when they sent their memo up the chain of command (that would be to the American people, including you and me), they did exactly the opposite of what the designers of their program’s website did.
Maybe even the Nancy Pelosi-types who passed the legislation so they could find out what was in it knew more than they were letting on, too. But if Pelosi and her miserable minions in the House Democratic Caucus and co-conspirators in the Senate Democratic Caucus didn’t actually know that the White House was lying, it would have been out of willful ignorance. There is not a clean pair of Democratic hands in official Washington, today.
But no, the hubris and naivety I am talking about is the snap-the-fingers mindset.
We saw this mindset in action last week with the change in the Senate rule on the limits of debate. It was George Washington who said that the Senate was to be like the saucer of a coffee cup, where the hot liquid of legislation would sit for a while to cool down.
But the Senate filibuster was getting in the way of packing a pivotally placed court. The Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit deals with regulatory agencies, that is, with the administrative state. Think EPA on coal, Dodd-Frank and the financial sector or the regulatory mountain generated by the Affordable Care Act. The court has leaned strongly toward the view that law by decree is not law, despite what the administration says — hence the desire to pack it.
Hubris, naivety, will to power, snap-the-fingers view of government: those who created our Constitution knew what evil lurks in the hearts of men – what folly, too. They designed a system of limited government and checks and balances to contain it. For decades the liberal… or progressive… or modern (whatever you choose to call them) forces have little by little compromised that system.
When does compromise become destruction?