There’s a term of art that the Obama White House uses to describe its neurotic supporters who instantly race to the worst-case scenario: They are known as “bed-wetters.” Two months into the dysfunctional life of healthcare.gov, however, that seems a perfectly appropriate physiological reaction.
Liberalism has spent the better part of the past century attempting to prove that it could competently and responsibly extend the state into new reaches of American life. With the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, the administration has badly injured that cause, confirming the worst slurs against the federal government. It has stifled bad news and fudged promises; it has failed to translate complex mechanisms of policy into plain English; it can’t even launch a damn website. What’s more, nobody responsible for the debacle has lost a job or suffered a demotion. Over time, the Affordable Care Act’s technical difficulties can be repaired. Reversing the initial impressions of government ineptitude won’t be so easy.
FORTUNATELY FOR THE NEW DEAL, TWITTER DIDN’T BROADCAST EVERY FARMER’S SAD ENCOUNTER WITH THE AGRICULTURE ADJUSTMENT ACT.
The onus, in other words, was on liberals to prove the concept of government. And while their ideas for what the state could accomplish were often quite vague, they made confident claims about their capacity to implement them. Back when Woodrow Wilson was a professor at Bryn Mawr, hepublished a seminal essay extolling “the science of administration.” His case was characteristic of the times and the ideology he helped shape. Wilson imagined technical experts, the new breed of social scientists emerging from the universities, who could help steer the economy. He would come to see these experts as a bulwark against the predations of corporations and protectors of the “man on the make.” Government efficiency became something of a slogan for the movement. When Teddy Roosevelt thumped his fists before the Progressive Party convention in 1912—the moment he pandered hardest to the nascent liberalism—he invoked efficiency 22 times, rallying the throngs of reformers behind what he called the “cause of human rights and of government efficiency.”