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Commentary: History Will Forget the Obamacare Website's Bungled Launch

Carolyn Kaster/AP file photo

National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru says Obamacare—like George W. Bush's Iraq War—should persuade Americans that "the grand designs of governments, left or right, can go wrong in many more ways than they can go right, than anyone can foresee, and than even the 'best and the brightest' ... can fix."

It's not an original thought, it's not exclusive to conservative commentators, and it's not exactly news to the White House. From The New Republic to the West Wing, progressives are worried that—as TNR's John Judis put it—a failed Obamacare will "reinforce for a generation the argument against any government initiatives."

So call it a consensus, and one that resonates in the Oval Office. But don't call it right.

Because history suggests it's wrong.

Ponnuru and other Obama critics are spot-on when they say the Bush years offer a ready analogue to Obamacare, but it's not Iraq. It's the rollout of Medicare Part D in 2006.

Like Obamacare, as Ezra Klein recently pointed out, it was a massive medical expansion with administrative complexity. Like Obamacare, the Medicare Part D website didn't work upon launch. And like Obamacare, people saw their plans canceled and supposedly better alternatives rendered inaccessible.

Then as now, the media jumped to document the administration's every misstep following the rollout of the website. NPR and The Washington Post detailed the mounting enrollment disaster, while The New York Timesreported that Medicare Part D might cost the GOP support among the elderly. "Older voters, a critical component of Republican Congressional victories for more than a decade, could end up being a major vulnerability for the party in this year's midterm elections, according to strategists in both parties," Ceci Connolly wrote in The Times.

Pundits were even more unsparing. Michael Kinsley wrote in The Washington Post, "The hideous complexity of President Bush's prescription drug program has reduced elderly Americans—and their children—to tears of bewildered frustration." And Paul Krugman wrote in The Times, "We are ruled by bunglers. Every major venture by the Bush administration, from the occupation of Iraq to the Medicare drug program, has turned into an epic saga of incompetence."

And now, how many voters remember the Medicare Part D rollout?

It's the nature of the news industry to focus on what's gone wrong as opposed to, say, what's working or what's moving in the direction of progress. It was true in 2006. It's true today. It will likely be true in the future.

That's not, however, how history gets written—or how people think over the long haul.

Democrats know this and are counting on the media's narrative being tossed.

"The Dec. 1 deadline was important, but there won't be chapters in the history books written about Dec. 1," said Democratic National Committee spokesman Michael Czin. "I think it's important to look at this holistically."

That's what you always say when you're losing on the particulars. Look at the big picture, the long arc of history! But this isn't just wishful thinking. Yes, may well have consequences for Democrats in 2014. But anything much beyond that is hyperbole. Americans and the media have already forgotten the supposedly "horrendous" rollout of Medicare Part D, and it happened just seven years ago, when most seasoned members of the Washington press corps were already in Washington.

If the White House is alarmed by the outlandishness of the various "Obamacare is as bad as…." comparisons—Iraq, Katrina, the sinking of the Titanic, the Battle of Waterloo, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger—it should be heartened by the fact that the media can't even remember the more recent and germane example.

If the media can't remember 2006, will voters a decade from now, confronted with the possibility of some new government program, really stop and say, "Remember how that website didn't work right in 2013?"

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