Martin Short had the best line at Saturday night's Governors Awards presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: "President Obama said if you like your Oscar, you can keep it."
Presumably, Angelina Jolie will. When a Hollywood crowd (full of Democrats) roars, you know that a complete screw-up by the administration has fully entered the popular culture.
The issues now aren't just fixes — and those won't be easy. The issue is also blame — or rather, responsibility. And even more, principle.
I don't blame Obama for the problems with the website. Yes, the buck stops there, and it certainly was a blunder for which his administration is clearly responsible. But I would bet you any amount of money that every time the president asked about the status of the website, he was told that things were moving along just swimmingly. Problems, sure, but that they were being addressed.
Nobody likes to tell presidents bad news. My bet is that the people who were talking directly to him didn't themselves know the nature of the problems. And before you use this as an excuse to condemn government, remember that the private sector was involved, as well.
But the really good news is that the website problems can be fixed. This is technical stuff, and already there are signs of improvement. There is no question that the administration bungled the rollout, should've done better, should've known and admitted and taken responsibility. But that crisis will pass.
There is a far bigger problem lurking. On its face, it's the "cancellation" issue. Some, maybe most, of the policies being canceled were relatively less expensive policies that provided fewer benefits than those required by the Affordable Care Act. Now, some of us might say good. People need more benefits. Some people had lousy policies because they were the only ones they could buy, and some people had them because they were what they could afford, and some people had them precisely because they were cheap and were all they thought they needed or could afford. They need preventive care and pregnancy care and mental health services and the like.
But here's the rub: All of those things cost money. And there are two possibilities. If you're actually poor or close to it, the government will pay for most or all of those benefits, which is great for you but might be a budget buster for the country. If you're like most people, however — which is to say not poor-poor but definitely on a budget, paycheck to paycheck and all — the cancellations raise a much more fundamental question. Who knows best about how you should spend your money: you or the government?
If that sounds like a political slogan, that's because it is — or rather, it was. Ronald Reagan, 1980. That's how he described the difference between Republicans and Democrats. He wanted to cut taxes because he thought you knew best. The Democrats wanted to raise them because we thought we did.
I'm old enough to remember who won that one, and it was very painful. Ironically, it didn't really apply to the tax cuts Reagan was proposing, which in turn caused huge deficits that we all had to pay for. But (I'm sad to say) it sort of does make sense in understanding what's going on with these subpar policies.
Take the example of the young woman, very entrepreneurial, just bought her first condo, does my makeup every Saturday at Fox. She calls me her surrogate mother. I give advice. Some of it she follows. She is in her 20s and in good health and is more responsible than most young people her age. She has insurance, but it's one of those policies. It doesn't cover pregnancy, and drug coverage is limited. Basically, it's good for a catastrophe. Other than that, she doesn't go to the doctor much and pays when she does.
Now they're canceling that policy and offering her one that costs three times as much and includes a lot of services she doesn't think she needs. And here's the rub: She's probably right. She probably won't use them. Instead, her premiums will be used to support older people who need more services than, frankly, they could ever afford.
She can't remember Reagan, and she can't understand why the government thinks it knows better how she should spend her money than she does. I cringe when I hear that. Worked last time.
(Susan Estrich is a professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California Law Center. A best-selling author, lawyer and politician, as well as a teacher, she first gained national prominence as national campaign manager for Dukakis for President in 1988.)