The phrase "good enough for government work" used to be a boast. Then it became an insult. With Obamacare, it is an ethic.
On Cyber Monday, the federal government was the only entity on the planet touting a commercial website with the promise that it would work most of the time, provided people visiting during peak hours were willing to take a number and come back later.
Although HealthCare.gov was still plagued by what used to be known as "glitches," it was working better. In fact, it appears to be well on the way to being fixed -- except for the part where people pay for and actually get insurance. That is called the "backend," or the payment system without which any other business would go bust. To be charitable, it is still a work in progress.
The line in the administration's progress report about the technical team working "with private sector velocity and effectiveness" said it all. No one would ever brag about working "with public sector velocity and effectiveness."
Yet it is the government that is vastly increasing its reach via Obamacare. Explaining away the troubles of his signature initiative, President Barack Obama pledged the other day, "We're going to keep on working to fix whatever problems come up in any startup, any launch of a project this big that has an impact on one-sixth of our economy."
Startups don't ordinarily affect one-sixth of the economy. Usually, no one hears about them unless they prove to be successes, and by then they are reliably functional. The president is surely correct that any vast experiment affecting one-sixth of the economy will inevitably have pitfalls -- which is why it is foolhardy to undertake one.
Obama is confident his law will work because, as he repeatedly says, "The product is good." The leader of the free world is now a glorified insurance salesman. At times he sounds like a poor man's Billy Mays -- you may be eligible, he enthuses, for tax credits "that can save you hundreds of dollars in premium costs every month." He says everything but "Order Now!"
As a pitchman, the president has advantages no others can match. He can engage in shamelessly false advertising without having to worry about the Better Business Bureau breathing down his neck. He passed a law called the "Affordable Care Act," even though its mandates and regulations inevitably make health insurance more expensive.
Obama also doesn't have to worry too much about whether the product is truly good or not. He can fall back on government power. Individuals are having their insurance policies canceled by force of law, whether they are satisfied with them or not. Then they have to buy Obamacare-compliant policies or face a fine. This isn't competition in the marketplace. It's coercion.
That is the ultimate backstop for good-enough-for-government work. Government doesn't gain or lose market share on its merits. It doesn't go out of business. It rumbles on, no matter what, and the Obama team is relying on sheer inertia -- backed by the president's veto pen -- to trump all else.
They rolled out a disastrously flawed website on Oct. 1 because, hey, at least it's a website. They touted their Nov. 30 fixes as a success because, hey, at least there were some fixes. They will tout whatever sign-up numbers they get -- no matter how far short of their goals, or even if the law has rendered more people newly uninsured than it has enrolled -- because, hey, at least they are sign-ups.
The president portrays himself as the picture of flexibility in considering improvements to the law, but he opposes changes passed by Congress on principle and is willing only to improvise by executive fiat. The latest on-the-fly change is a scheme to pay insurers estimated subsidies because the website can't yet calculate them accurately.
"Short-term fix eyed for another problem with U.S. healthcare website" is how the Reuters headline put it. Good enough for government work.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.