The art of the escape

In the great tradition of American civil disobedience, President Barack Obama is defying a law. It’s just one that he himself lobbied for, signed and lost a house of Congress over. Even Henry David Thoreau would be hard-pressed to understand this one.

The famous dissenter refused to pay a tax because of his opposition to the Mexican-American War and slavery; presumably, though, he would have been willing to comply with the provisions of something called ThoreauCare.

President Obama is in a much more awkward spot. At every turn, he is confronted by the irrationalities and inconveniences of his own health-care law. Not since Cary Grant was chased by the crop-duster in “North by Northwest” has there been such an affecting scene of a man constantly on the run. The president’s tools of evasion are waivers, deadline extensions, reinterpretations and last-minute demands on insurance companies. Really, any means necessary.

Coordination with the insurance companies is dispensed with, and public notice is spotty. Announcements are sometimes made at night, when everyone eagerly awaits the latest news on how American health insurance will work. It was around 9 p.m. that the administration let it be known that it was partially suspending the individual mandate in 2014 by exempting people who have had their insurance policies canceled. It didn’t even publicly announce its one-day extension of the deadline to get insurance by Jan. 1. This is not just government by diktat, but government by embarrassed diktat.

Understandably, since the administration has a lot to be embarrassed about, it long ago stopped caring about coherence. After the latest big change, the individual mandate applies to you, except if it doesn’t. It is absolutely essential to the functioning of the law, except when it isn’t. The law is a Great Leap Forward for the cause of social justice. But it is also a hardship.

That was the justification for this new dispensation from on high. It had to be issued to accommodate the unfortunate event described by the administration as “your current health-insurance policy is being canceled and you consider other available policies unaffordable” — in other words, the inherent logic of the law. The president had previously announced that the administration would decline to enforce its own rules causing those cancellations. When that proved ineffectual, it went further. The smart betting is that this partial suspension of the individual mandate next year will eventually be followed by a full suspension.

The administration’s previous on-the-fly change, about a week earlier, had the same desperate feel. It issued a series of new demands on insurance companies. As Yuval Levin, editor of the journal National Affairs, summarized the edict, it asked them “to pay claims for consumers who haven’t paid their premiums, to treat out-of-network doctors and hospitals as though they were in-network, and to pay for prescription drugs not actually covered by the plans they offer.”

The point of all this is simply to live until tomorrow. To avoid the worst consequences of the catastrophically poor design of the law, to give frightened Democrats some cover, to temporize and hope something turns up. Needless to say, we aren’t talking about some obscure piece of uncontroversial legislation that, because it got so little notice, was poorly crafted. This is the president’s signature law. That its implementation is so shot through with panicked, poorly conceived improvisation is — to use a favorite word of its supporters upon its passage — historic.

It’s as if Teddy Roosevelt dreaded the consequences of the Pure Food and Drug Act. Or if Franklin Delano Roosevelt repeatedly tried to wiggle out of the Social Security Act. Or Lyndon Baines Johnson shot the Civil Rights Act through with ad hoc, after-the-fact exemptions.

At his end-of-the-year press conference, President Obama hoped for a better 2014. But come Jan. 1, Obamacare will still loom, and he will, no doubt, have to find new, yet more inventive ways to try to escape.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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