Nancy Pelosi infamously said that we had to pass Obamacare to find out what's in it. The then-House speaker erroneously assumed, evidently, that people would be able to get onto the government-run exchanges created by the law.
So far the law's implementation has been as ugly as its passage. The rollout of Obamacare has been so disastrous that even "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart was plainly mystified and unconvinced when Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius came on his show the other day to offer reassurances.
Judging by the haphazard beginning -- error messages have been the norm, and the federal website has had to be taken offline several times -- you'd guess that this was a back-burner project for the Obama administration, or the start date for the exchanges had been sprung on it a few weeks ago. Of course, it is the president's most cherished initiative, and his team has had more than three years to get the exchanges up and running.
Imagine the chaos if this were something the administration cared about less. The conservative trope used to be that Americans shouldn't want health care delivered by the people who run the post office. The new conservative trope could be that Americans shouldn't want health care delivered by the people who built HealthCare.gov.
A young man named Chad Henderson achieved instant media celebrity by claiming to have signed up for Obamacare on the federal exchange. So desperate were reporters to find someone who had managed this unlikely feat that they flocked to him for interviews about his amazing experience -- except even he hadn't actually done it.
How many people sign up for insurance on the exchanges, and what kind of people (young or old, sick or healthy), is central to the future of the law. But administration officials won't say how many people have enrolled. This is either because they do know and are too embarrassed to say, or because the system is so dysfunctional, it is genuinely impossible to determine.
The website problems are the result, according to the administration, of overwhelming volume. Experts disagree. CBS quoted a sympathetic programmer named Luke Chung observing that "it wasn't designed well, it wasn't implemented well, and it looks like nobody tested it."
The Washington Post cited two allies of the administration who "said they approached White House officials this year to raise concerns that the federal exchange was not ready to launch. In both cases, Obama officials assured them there was no cause for alarm."
President Barack Obama and his team have repeatedly compared Obamacare's "glitches" to those of the new Apple operating system. But Steve Jobs was a famously demanding and exacting boss. If he had run Apple like HHS, it would have been the best thing ever to happen to BlackBerry.
The more apt comparison might be to the FBI, which had an epic years-long struggle to upgrade its computer system, beset by software meltdowns and cost overruns.
Presumably, the administration will eventually make its website work, since it doesn't involve radically new technology. The more fundamental question is whether the larger project is sustainable when the exchanges need young and healthy people to sign up, at the same time they will have to pay sharply more under Obamacare.
The San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News quoted one Cindy Vinson, an Obamacare supporter, who was disconcerted to learn that she will have to pay $1,800 more a year for an individual policy. "Of course, I want people to have health care," she said. "I just didn't realize I would be the one who was going to pay for it personally."
She might not have realized it because the president of the United States never mentions it. In all his speeches about Obamacare, he never quite gets around to the part about some premiums going up, which for people forced to pay more will probably be the most salient feature of the law.
But hey, what possibly could go wrong?
(Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)