In Iowa just before the New Year, former Vice President Joe Biden had an interesting response to a voter’s concerns about Obamacare. The voter said his father had lost his coverage when the law’s major provisions took effect in 2014, and the “replacement” plans proved far more expensive. Asked to apologize for what PolitiFact dubbed its “Lie of the Year” for 2013—that “If you like your plan, you can keep it”—Biden demurred by claiming the following:
There’s two ways people know when something is important. One, when it’s so clear when it’s passed that everybody understands it. And no one did understand Obamacare, including the way it was rolled out. And the gentleman’s right—he said you could keep your doctor if you wanted to, and you couldn’t keep your doctor if you wanted to, necessarily. He’s dead right about that.
On its face, Biden’s comments initially resemble House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it” gaffe. But in reality, they hint at a larger truth: the federal government has gotten so big and sprawling, nobody really understands it.
Pelosi’s ‘Kinsley Gaffe’
Just before Obamacare’s passage in March 2010, Pelosi made comments that conservatives have parodied for most of the ten years since:
Upon closer inspection, though, her comments centered on the political messaging about the law, rather than the underlying policy. She prefaced her infamous quote by noting that “You’ve heard about the controversies within the bill, the process about the bill.”
But in Pelosi’s view, the American people had not heard about the substance of the bill itself: “I don’t know if you have heard that it is legislation for the future.” She went on to talk a bit about preventive care measures contained in Obamacare, which in her view would lower health-care costs. She then gave her infamous quote about passing the bill “so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of the controversy.”
Pelosi’s statement still seems extraordinary. She admitted that, even with Barack Obama—who won the presidency in fair measure through his rhetoric—in the White House, more than 250 Democrats in the House, and 60 Democrats in the Senate, Obamacare had proven a political failure. Democrats had lost the messaging battle in 2009 and 2010, and could only hope that enacting the legislation and allowing Americans to see its purported benefits could turn the dynamic around.
But Pelosi’s comments said “we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it”—emphasis on the second person. She still claimed to know the contents of the legislation, contra the recent claims of the vice president at the time.
So Much for ‘Experts’
On one level, Biden’s comments echoed Pelosi’s. He talked about “the way it was rolled out”—a likely reference to the messaging battles of 2009-10, the “debacle” of the exchange launch in late 2013, or a combination of the two.
But unlike Pelosi—who said the public didn’t understand Obamacare—Biden said that “no one did understand Obamacare.” One wonders whether the statement meant to inoculate Obama from accepting blame for his “like your plan” rhetoric, even though Obama himself apologized for misleading the public on the issue in late 2013.
Regardless, Biden’s rhetoric echoes the example of Max Baucus, at the time the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Asked shortly after the legislation passed whether he had read Obamacare prior to its enactment, he responded that “I don’t think you want me to waste my time to read every single word of that health care bill,” because “we hire experts” who are the only people who “know what the heck it is:”
Except that four years later, one of those “experts” who worked on Baucus’ staff at the time, Yvette Fontenot, admitted that when drafting Obamacare’s employer mandate, “We didn’t have a very good handle on how difficult operationalizing the provision would be at that time.” So, to borrow Baucus’ own phrase, even one of his self-appointed “experts” didn’t “know what the heck it is” either.
Why Expand a Government You Can’t Even Understand?
Biden’s comments once again reveal that the federal government has become too big and sprawling for anyone to understand. Yet he and his Democratic colleagues continue to push massive, multi-trillion-dollar expansions of government as part of their presidential campaigns. Sen. Elizabeth Warren goes so far as to claim that “experts” can fix just about everything that’s wrong with the world, even though Biden’s admission shows that they need to start by fixing the problems they caused.
As the old saying goes, when you’re in a hole, stop digging. That axiom applies equally to Biden’s propensity to put his foot in his mouth and Democrats’ desire to expand a government they do not understand.