Pundits and politicians are spending a lot of time today arguing about who were the biggest winners and losers of the government shutdown. Some are obvious. President Obama won. Republicans lost. Ted Cruz fits into both categories, as he did his party great damage but may have strengthened his popularity among Tea Partiers thinking about 2016. But lost amid the hubbub is the person who might have been the greatest beneficiary of the crisis: Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
Sebelius seems an unlikely candidate for this honor but as the person who has presided over the disastrous rollout out ObamaCare, she owes a huge debt to Cruz, Mike Lee and the House Republicans for bringing Washington to a standstill for 16 days. Had they not put forward the strategy that led to the government shutdown while monopolizing the attention of the media, it’s likely that most Americans would have spent this period obsessing about the incompetence of Sebelius and her department. Though the “glitches” of the Affordable Care Act’s website did not escape public notice, this was a story that would have been the lede of every newscast and at the top of the front page of every newspaper in the country. Instead, it was an afterthought. This bought Sebelius precious time to try and fix some of the problems at Healthcare.gov. But now that the shutdown is over, it’s time to assess just how long she can survive and whether she will be the inevitable administration scapegoat for a problem that goes a lot deeper than bad computer programming.
As White House press secretary Jay Carney has argued, ObamaCare is more than a clunky website. He’s right about that but for an administration that has always rightly prided itself on their comfort level with technology and new media, somebody has to take responsibility for the fact that the president’s signature legislation is being implemented with a system that reeks of bureaucratic incompetence and lack of forethought.
Moreover, if Sebelius and her staff couldn’t even get a simple website business model right, it’s fair to ask how they can possibly manage what will eventually become a major expansion of government power that will influence the way Americans get their health care. Given that we already know that the implementation of many of its arcane and little understood nuances have caused the president to delay portions of its rollout, it’s more than likely than the website fiasco isn’t the last serious problem HHS will have in trying to manage this leviathan.
That leaves the president with a considerable dilemma.
The longer he leaves Sebelius in office the worse things are likely to get for ObamaCare. He had counted on the unpopular bill gradually winning over the public once many Americans started to enjoy their new benefits even if more Americans would be inconvenienced or harmed rather than helped. But the Sebelius-led department may already be in over its head on the issue. Without both a leadership change and a commitment to re-evaluating the entire department’s performance, the government’s growing health care bureaucracy may simply do what such entity’s generally do: sink deeper and deeper into the quicksand of red tape and lack of accountability. That may mean the expected boost from the ACA’s beneficiaries may have to wait a lot longer than the president expected. Perhaps it will be too long to do the Democrats any good in the 2014 midterm elections.
But canning Sebelius now or sometime in the near future will carry its own serious political risks.
Firing the secretary will mean doing something that Obama rarely does: admit a mistake. But more than that it will mean the start of a confirmation process and hearings that will, without any great effort on the part of the president’s Republican critics, turn into a public trial of the legislation and the competence of his administration. Coming off his triumph in the shutdown crisis, that might be enough to knock the president back to where he was two months ago as a series of failures and scandals had all but placed a sign reading “lame duck” on the front door of the White House.
Had the last two weeks been devoted to an exploration of Sebelius’ incompetence that might have created too much pressure on the president to resist the impulse to clean house now before the problem morphed into something that couldn’t be controlled.
Instead, it has bought Sebelius more time to vindicate her department and the ACA. But at some point, and probably sooner rather than later, it won’t be just Republicans calling for Sebelius’s head, but Democrats who will want someone to take the fall for an ObamaCare disaster that will spread as its impact on the economy grows. If, as is more than likely, she continues to fail, the president may have no choice but to have her walk the plank and start a controversial and perhaps damaging process to replace the secretary. If so, he may come to view the extra time the shutdown bought Sebelius as a curse disguised as a blessing that he might have good reason to regret.