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Another Kansas Laughingstock

The catastrophic failure of Obamacare has caused a widespread feeling of schadenfreude among Republicans everywhere, who are all well entitled to one of the most satisfying “I told you so” moments in American history, even as they suffer the expense effects of the law along with everyone else, but the exhilarating sense of vindication is especially sweet for Republicans here in Kansas.
More significant calamities are sure to come, but thus far the most widely acknowledged failing of the new health care boondoggle is the thoroughly botched computer system  and general bureaucratic bumbling that has been unanimously blamed on former Kansas Governor and current Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Her ineptitude in implementing the ambitious reform of one-sixth of the economy has been so stark that even such reliably supportive satirists as The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart and the wags of Saturday Night Live have been piling on with their ridicule, and no less a purveyor of conventional wisdom than The Hill has dubbed her “the laughingstock of America.” Kansans are by now well-accustomed to having one of their own be the laughingstock of America, sometimes for valid reasons and sometimes for reasons having more to do with the rest of the country’s absurd prejudices, but it is a rare pleasure to have the Kansan in question be a Democrat. When the Democrat in question is Kathleen Sebelius, it’s all the better.
Kansas is a mostly Republican state, after all, and from Alf Landon to Dwight Eisenhower to Bob Dole most of its native sons and daughters who have achieved sufficient prominence to be a national laughingstock have been Republicans. Having the laughs directed to one of our Democratic minority is a refreshing change of pace, and all the more so when it one of the party’s locally beloved figures. If you’re not a true-blue Kansan or a true-blue Republican, and it’s not quite possible to be one without being the other, it’s hard to explain how very mellifluous is the laughter being hurled at Kathleen Sebelius.
It’s hard to explain, for that matter, how Sebelius ever became governor of this state. To begin with you must understand that also Kansans have very rarely sent Democrats to Washington they have a stubbornly contrarian way about them that doesn’t mind sending one of the danged fools to Topeka every now and then. Anti-tax and pro-life Democrats in particular have a history of winning occasional gubernatorial elections in the state, which has the undeniable benefit of keeping the state’s politics competitive enough to limit the complacency and corruption that characterize one-party jurisdictions, and once or twice in the average Kansan’s lifespan there might be even be a Democratic majority in the state’s House of Representatives for a single term. One also must understand the schisms within the state’s Republican party to understand how the likes of Sebelius ever won the governorship.
Prior to Sebelius the state had been guided for two four-year terms by the blissfully unobtrusive hand of Gov. Bill Graves, a successful trucking magnate who was handsome in a distinguished and silver-tinged sort of way and preached free enterprise, kept the occasional crony-capitalism eco-devo deal coursing the legislature, and pursued a more-or-less limited-government agenda that also limited the government’s intervention in such matters as abortion. Kansas survived such governance in pretty good shape, as far as most Kansas were concerned, but a more fervent portion of Graves’ party found it too weak a Republican brew and its fervor managed to win the nomination for a more full-throated champion of traditional social values and free enterprise. The nominee was easily caricatured as a Bible-thumping zealot by Kansas’ liberal-as-anywhere-else media, the reform rhetoric spooked the state’s well-connected Republican establishment, and the Democrats shrewdly nominated Sebelius as the more moderate and reasonable alternative. She was handsome in a distinguished and silver-tinged sort of way, and although a relative newcomer to the state she was the daughter of governor in her native land of Ohio, so there was an aura of competence about her. After decades of Republican occupation of the Insurance Commissioner’s office had led to the inevitable complacency and corruption of one-partly rule Sebelius had won the post, and acted with an anti-corporate bias that was widely perceived as populism, so she also had a plausible record of public service to run on. Throw in a professionally-run campaign financed largely by out-of-state contributions and the usual corporate suspects, along with the unease many of the moderate sorts of Republicans felt about the fire-breathing challenger, and Sebelius was elected by less than a landslide but more than a squeaker.
The first four years of Sebelius’ governorship were barely noticeable, which can be attributed her politically-savvy instincts and the seemingly good health of the national economy, but after that led to her re-election she seemed to be auditioning for a role in the national party. Kansas was suddenly surprised to learn that it had re-elected a rather doctrinaire Democrat as governor, and in addition to a number of liberal initiatives Kansas further enraged the state’s Republican sensibilities by using the tragedy of a tornado that virtually wiped out the tiny town of Greensburg to criticize the Iraq war. Her claim that the town had been denied necessary state assistance because of the war’s use of state National Guard equipment was baseless, and enraged even formerly supportive Republicans, but it endeared her enough to the national party to win a plum cabinet appointment during her second mid-term after the president’s first pick for Secretary of Health and Human Services fell victim to a tax-evasion scandal.
The ostensible promotion was widely expected by the state’s Democrats to be a boon to both her and the party at large, but thus far it doesn’t seem to have worked out that way. She was replaced by her Lieutenant Governor Mark Parkinson, a former state Republican chairman who had left the party as a result of his estrangement with the social conservatives and his ambition to be governor, but after two years of tax hikes and nanny state initiatives he bowed out of pubic life. For the sake of full disclosure we divulge that Parkinson is a friend of ours since high school, and that we once spent a summer painting apartment buildings together and we are also quite fond of his parents and eccentric B-movie-producing brother, but we also came to admire his smarts and they were very much in evidence when he declined to run against former Sen. Sam Brownback, also an old friend of ours and a fire-breathing social conservative and staunch opponent of Obamacare, who would have easily trounced any Democratic rival after eight years of a Sebelius-Parkinson reign.
Meanwhile, back in the rarefied air of Washington and the national scene, Sebelius is now an officially-designated laughingstock. The apparent failure of the Obamacare program that she had been chosen to implement will prove a textbook example of the failure of the “smart government” she had claimed to represent, and the big government philosophy she had so long denied, and the very antithesis of that represented by Gov. Sam Brownback seems likely to win re-election handily. As bad as the damage from Obamacare will be, a Kansas Republican can’t help feeling that some good might come of it.

— Bud Norman

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Blaming the Victims

The first phase in dealing with an imminent doom, according to the famous Kübler-Ross “stages of grief” theory, is denial. The second phase, according to the Democratic Party’s playbook, is blaming the Republicans.
So it has gone with the slow, painful death of Obamacare. At first the Democrats were insistent that all was not only fine but also dandy with the health care reform law, but once even the morning newspapers and the late-night comics started kicking at the corpse that pretense has become impossible to maintain. Although the White House is still insisting that all is well, much like Kevin Bacon’s character in the climactic riot scene at the end of “Animal House,” the rest of the party has moved onto that necessary step of finding a suitable scapegoat.
The most reliable play in the party’s playbook is blaming George W. Bush, of course, but certain well-known facts make it difficult to execute in this case. Even the least informed of the low-information voters are aware that Obamacare is a creation of the Obama administration, with the very name being one obvious reminder of this fact, and the president has done too much bragging about it to deny responsibility now. The best minds of the liberal blogosphere are no doubt hard at work trying to contrive some plausible way to blame Bush, or at least Dick Cheney, but thus far the theory has not been unveiled.

There are a few other Republicans left in Washington, so the Democrats know which direction to point their fingers as they shout “j’accuse,” but the accusation requires a more fertile imagination than the average non-Democrat is likely to possess. Not a single Republican voted for Obamacare, not even a single one of those squishy RINO types from the northeast, and almost all of them have repeatedly reiterated their opposition in a series of votes to de-fund, delay, or downright repeal the hated law. To further exonerate the Republican Party, even as it enrages the rank-and-file, all of those votes have done nothing to obstruct the relentless implementation of the law.
This doesn’t prevent the Democrats from blaming Republican obstructionism for the law’s increasingly apparent problems, of course, nor does it diminish the Democrats’ indignation. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, perhaps the most indignant politician ever, has accused the Republicans of “sabotage.” Former Vermont governor, Democratic National Committee chairman, and noted screamer Howard Dean has taken a similar line, saying the Republican have “thrown monkey wrenches” into the exquisite gear work of Obamacare. President Obama himself has accused the Republicans of “rooting for failure,” with a sports fan’s faith that rooting somehow affects the outcome of a game, and seems ready to fully shift the blame once he is at last forced to give up his denial.
A couple of explanations for the Republicans’ culpability are currently being auditioned before a friendly Democratic audience, which has been predictably receptive, but it remains to be seen if they will play to a wider audience.
White House spokesman Jay Carney has blamed the brief partial shutdown of the federal government, which he in turn blames on the Republicans, for the widely-reported failure of the Obamacare web site. This will no doubt seem quite convincing to any Democrats still eager for evidence that he partial shutdown of the federal government was a bad thing, but less-partisan observers will note that the web site’s disastrous launch coincided with the shutdown and it’s shoddy design by the Democratic-connected firm of Shemp, Curly, and Moe predated any thought of the shutdown by several years. Anyone gullible enough to believe this argument will need to apprised that there was a partial government shutdown, and brought up to speed on how it was the Republicans’ insane insistence on a one-year-delay of Obamacare’s individual mandate was responsible for the horrible consequences that no one noticed, and what an “individual mandate” is, and never mind that several Democratic Senators are now calling for its one-year delay, so it becomes a difficult argument to make.
The other Republicans to be blamed are the 26 governors who declined to set up Obamacare exchanges in their states, leaving the thankless chore to the federal government that had concocted the crazy idea, but this is also a hard sell. Here in Kansas the Democrats are seething that our very Republican Gov. Sam Brownback declined to create a state exchange, but they’re the same people who tell us that Obama is the most brilliant and virtuous person in the history of mankind and that Brownback is both moronic and venal, so it’s hard to see why they’d prefer to see the latter administering their health care than the former. All those Republican governors are said to be moronic and venal, but they don’t seem to have nearly the problems or done any of the damage that can be attributed to the allegedly brilliant and virtuous Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius who did the job they declined.
Much of the public is predisposed to blame Republicans for anything that goes wrong, and the Democrats can always count on the supportive news and entertainment media to encourage that predisposition, but this time it’s going to require more extraordinary efforts. The Republicans didn’t design Obamacare’s slapstick web site, and were wise not to try, and even after the glitches and bugs and abysmal failures have been worked out the higher premiums, bigger deficits, decreased care, and increased bureaucratic nuttiness that was inherent in the law from the time every single Republican voted against it will become too check-writing clear to be denied or blamed on anyone but the Democrats.

— Bud Norman

Sounding Smart to Stupid People

Many years ago we had a friend on our high school debate team who adopted the odd habit of adding an extra syllable to words. When devising a plan he would “strategetize” rather “strategize,” for instance, and he was adamant that “conservativism” rather than “conservatism” is the political philosophy espoused by conservatives.
He did this on the belief that most people are impressed and intimated by multi-syllabic words, and that by adding an extra consonant to a three-syllable word he could make it one-third more impressive and intimidating. Judging by the awestruck looks that would cross some people’s faces whenever he unleashed one of his new and improved coinages, and they way they seemed willing to accept whatever nonsensical argument he was making, we were forced concede there might be something to his theory. We tried to persuade him that although his highfalutin and fundamentally incorrect verbiage made him sound smart to stupid people it also made him sound stupid to smart people, but he’d laugh off the criticism by noting that because there are far more stupid people than smart people he would ultimately be more widely regarded as smart by saying such stupid things. As much as his mispronunciations grated on our sensitive ears, we had to admit there was probably something to that theory as well.
Our friend has since become a highly successful businessman, of course, and we’re pleased to hear that he’s still a staunch conservative. Perhaps he’s calling himself a “conservativist” these days, and still insisting that all the lexicographers and the rest of the English-speaking world have it wrong, but at any rate he still seems to be plying his shrewdly cynical rhetorical skills on behalf of the right causes. This is good to know, because liberalism in general and President Barack Obama in particular are especially adept at sounding smart to stupid people even when it entails the modest political cost of sounding stupid to smart people. Although they haven’t yet mastered the art of the extra syllable, they have an undeniable knack for manufacturing slogans with poll-tested mass appeal that somehow strike a more informed audience as wrong.
Two examples shouted out during Obama’s address Monday on behalf of his beleaguered Obamacare. The speech mostly extolled the great successes of the program, with some conspicuously uninspiring examples standing as props behind the podium, which will seem suspicious enough to smart people, but the president did briefly acknowledge the widely-reported difficulties with the web site that is supposed to make it all run and promised that a “surge” of the “best and brightest” professionals from the public and private sectors would soon have it all worked out. Smart people will immediately note the uncharacteristically generous acknowledgement of professional expertise in the private sector, especially on behalf of a program that seems designed to drive the money-loving bastards out of the of the health care field, but those of a certain age and a still-sound memory will be struck by the use of “surge” and “best and brightest.”
One needn’t be too old to remember when the word “surge” became associated with President George W. Bush’s military strategy — or “strategery,” if you prefer — to deal with the insurgency in Iraq. Then-Sen. Obama ridiculed the idea, and voted against its funding, but it proved successful enough in the field that President Obama uses the word “surge” with certainty that it will reassure a wary public that a sufficient outpouring of manpower will solve any problem. Smart people will savor the irony, even as they worry that a mass influx of soldiers will solve a military problem more often than a massive influx of computer programmers can fix a fundamentally-flawed health care system.
More seasoned readers will also raise an eyebrow at that “best and brightest” reference. They’ll recall that the phrase was introduced into parlance by David Halberstam’s book of same title about the Kennedy and Johnson administration stars who urged on the war in Vietnam. “The Best and Brightest” was meant ironically, of course, and as it became a cliché it was always used with sarcastic quotation marks. Anyone familiar with the phrase’s early usage will not be reassured that the “best and brightest” have been unleashed on America’s health.
Other examples abound in Obama’s political career. He once promised “peace in our time,” apparently either unaware or unconcerned that the slogan was famously associated with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s disastrous attempt at appeasing Adolf Hitler, and his apologists have created such formulations as “leading from behind.” “Hope and Change,” “Yes, We can,” “the failed policies of the Bush administration” and all the other vague slogans of his first presidential campaign had the same winning effect on the stupid and same calculated disregard for the smart, and all were delivered with a smug cocksureness and upraised chin that even our shrewd high school friend could not equal. It might not work with Obamacare, as even the stupidest among us can figure out when their health care costs are rising and grandma’s hip replacement is being put off, but most of the time it seems to work well enough. In order to counter this dangerous strategery, conservativists will have to learn to fight back.

— Bud Norman

Those Darned Computers

These newfangled “computer” thingamajigs are the most mysterious of all machines. Despite our stubborn Luddite tendencies we have figured out how to turn the contraption on, play chess on it, “surf the ‘net” for news and nudity, and even post these daily rants with properly indented paragraphs, but we have no idea how the darned things work. Our more technologically-savvy friends assure us that it has something to do with binary codes and silicon conductors and assorted other gobbledygook, but we cannot shake a suspicion that black magic is involved.
It is good to know, then, that the putatively brilliant boys and girls of the federal government are every bit as baffled by computers. Even our limited abilities in operating computers are sufficient to have brought us a slew of recent stories on the internet that document the government’s inability to run their multi-billion dollar super-computers.
The most prominently featured stories have been about the “glitches,” “bugs,” and other bad things that have bedeviled the computer system intended to enroll a grateful public in Obamacare-approved health insurance policies. No less an Obamacare enthusiast than The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein has declared the system “really bad,” and other reliably administration-friendly media mavens at the MSNBC staff have been forced to offer even harsher reviews. Things have gotten so bad that even Jon Stewart, the snarky “Daily Host” who usually reserves his wittiest mugging for Republicans, was obliged to skewer a blindsided Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius about the fiasco in a recent program. A friend who occasionally ventures on to Facebook tells us that the Obamacare page is full of comments from presumed “friends” unanimously griping about the frustrations of trying to navigate the web site.
Those who are paid to do so directly by the administration are still arguing that it’s all a matter of too much traffic and therefore proof of Obamacare’s overwhelming popularity, but more objective observers have offered two plausible explanations for the problems. The admirably geekish writers at the Infoworld.com web site blame it on cronyism, citing a number of computer experiences who contend that the companies awarded the contract to devise the site are better known for their political connections than their technical expertise, which strikes us as entirely believable. The writers at the usually-reliable Forbes Magazine theorize that the program was deliberately sabotaged by its all-too-shrewd designers, lest the folks trying to log onto the system discover that their health care costs under Obamacare will be far greater than they had been led to believe, and this also seems well within the realm of possibility. Some sorry combination of both explanations could also be true, given how often the government is both inept and nefarious.
Ineptitude seems the more likely explanation for the second slew of stories about governmental computer problems we’ve recently noticed, which involve the government’s Electronic Benefits Transfer program. Also known as “EBT cards” to those in the know about such things, or “Food Stamps” to those of us still stuck in pre-computer era of the welfare state, the program maintains computerized accounts for its ever-expanding number of beneficiaries which have lately gone awry. On Saturday the program shut down across the nation, leaving countless of would-be shoppers stranded at the check-out lanes of their local grocers without means of payment, and later that night at least two Walmart discount stores in Louisiana went back on line to find that there was no limit on the EBT purchases. The latter foul-up set off a social-media-fueled shopping frenzy at the stores, as even the most Walmart-shopping EBT-dependent people now have computers or fancy cell phones, with hundreds of shoppers filling carts to the brim in hopes of getting out of the store before the computer error could be rectified.
None of these stories inspire faith in the government’s ability to run these ambitious social programs, nor the programs themselves, but we find that slightly reassuring. Having grown up in the era of the dystopian futurist movie craze we well remember a nightmare-inducing thriller titled “Colossus: The Forbin Project,” about a government super-computer that threatened to impose totalitarian control over the entire world, as well as any number of other sci-fi yarns set in the far-off 21st Century about computers conquering mankind, and it is good to see that such scenarios remain far-fetched. Thus far these computer thingamajigs seem to do more to subvert totalitarianism than to advance it, and we’re certainly trying to do our part here, and it would seem that the putatively brilliant boys and girls of the federal government aren’t the equals of their counterparts in the private sector.

— Bud Norman

How to Fix Obamacare

This Obamacare business doesn’t seem to be going well, at least thus far. Things have gotten so bad that the politicians and bureaucrats who cooked it up have lately been forced to concede a few glitches in the system, even as they struggle mightily to assure the public that it will all turn out well in the end, and it makes for a pitiful sight. We feel so badly for these well-intentioned public servants that we feel obliged to offer advice on how to fix what is ailing their beloved law.
The most publicized problem that has afflicted the law in its early stages of implementation concerns the computer program that is supposed to allow a grateful citizenry to sign up for government-sanctioned health insurance. Alas, the program has proved so vexing that only a relative handful of would-be users have been able to complete a transaction. Such an ardent defender of the program as Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was forced to admit that the web site “started a little rockier than we’d like” while on The Daily Show, an ostensible comedy program where the formerly friendly host spent the rest of the segment ridiculing her as if she were some sort of Republican, and it broke our hearts to see a fellow Kansan treated so shabbily by a baggy-pants comic. Sebelius is a Democrat, and therefore not fully Kansan, but we still feel enough of a kinship to suggest that she award the Obamacare web site contract to whoever it is that created the “Farmville” game for the Facebook folks.
So far as we can tell “Farmville” is an utterly pointless game that never allows anyone to win anything, and seems to involve endless begging of friends for unearned assistance, but people seem to like it and it apparently works according to design. The peculiar sort of genius that devised such a game seems especially well-suited to the challenges of Obamacare, and might even provide some enticement to the youthful and unemployed Obama supporters whose generous donations to the cause will be required to make the scheme work.
Another problem with Obamacare, and one that even the mainstream media have been noticing, is that those lucky few who have managed to slog through the web site’s obstacles are finding that they insurance on offer is far more expensive than they had been led to expect. The president has frequently boasted that as a result of Obamacare the monthly cost of health insurance will be less than a cell phone bill, but even the most talkative and text-happy cell phone users are finding that the insurance policies on offer are far more expensive than their telecommunications. This is one Obamacare promise that can be easily kept, however, simply by increasing people’s cell phone bills by several hundred dollars a month. That can be quickly achieved by a mere few thousand pages or so new of regulations, an afternoon’s work for the best and brightest of the Obama administration, but we would recommend increasing the cell phone taxes by several hundred times. Doing so would not only spare the overworked regulation-writers an afternoon’s labor, it would also raise some revenues that could be used to pay Democrat-affiliated interests to embark a campaign to convince everyone how happy they should be about the new policy. The drastic reduction in cell phone use that would follow might have disastrous economic consequences, but on the other hand it might revive the lost art of conversation.
A few nit-pickers in the business press and other corners of the conservative media have been griping that Obamacare’s mandate that employers provide insurance to full-time employees has resulted in an economy that is only creating part-time jobs, a point the administration has tacitly conceded by waiving the mandate until after the mid-term elections, but this pesky problem can also be easily remedied. Just impose similar economic disincentives on part-time jobs, or any other sort of private sector economic activity, which is so gauche anyway, and employers won’t have any choice but to submit or stop offering work altogether. Either option would suit the purposes of the administration, which is always pleased to be offered submission and just as eager to sign up voters at the unemployment line.
There are other problems with Obamacare, of course, but we are not yet so sympathetic to our Democratic friends that we are willing to solve them all. They’ll just have to figure those things out own their own, otherwise they’ll never grow.

— Bud Norman