Politics in a time of computer glitches

By Tom Baxter

Over the past couple of years, three grand-scale computer crashes have made their way into the news: Facebook’s chaotic IPO, the election-day collapse of Orca, the Romney campaign’s “killer app” for turning out Republican voters, and the problem-plagued launch of HealthCare.gov, the federal health insurance exchange portal, which prompted the first-ever Rose Garden speech to deal with a computer crash.

The first big lesson that can be derived from these three disasters is that when a lot is on the line, run a beta test. Team Romney failed to do that before the last election and ended up looking like amateurs compared to the smoothly running Democratic technical operation. That makes the launch failure of HealthCare.gov even more embarrassing for a president who was being lauded only days before for his flinty-eyed resolve in the budget crisis.

The second lesson is that while these high-profile technical failures have increasingly significant consequences, they still aren’t the main chance.

The Orca fiasco was a symptom of the Romney campaign’s problems, not the cause. He would have lost whether it crashed or not, though the result might have been narrower. The IPO problems have had serious consequences for NASDAQ, but Facebook’s stock steadied and took flight after a harrowing plunge from the initial public offering price. Its price today probably isn’t much different from what it would have been if the IPO had gone smoothly.

And in a similar way, the success or failure of the Affordable Care Act isn’t going to hinge on the slowdowns and errors which have marked the launch of the website, embarrassing though they may be to the administration.

The health insurance exchanges directly affect an estimated 15 percent of Americans. The Medicaid expansion which kicks in next January is a much more fundamental change in the health care delivery system most Americans come in contact with. You might think of the exchanges as the part of the law that impacts insurance companies, and the Medicaid expansion as the part that most directly impacts hospitals, doctors and medical groups.

Already, a fault line has begun to take shape which by next year will turn into a great divide. The states which opted to set up their own exchanges, such as Maryland and Kentucky, have launched the new program with relatively few of the online problems reported elsewhere. Compounding the animosity over the law, the states, such as ours, which declined to set up exchanges and defaulted to the federal government’s website, are where there are now some of the most frustrated consumers. It doesn’t help matters in Georgia that the bar for qualifying HCA facilitators has been raised high enough so there won’t be many of them to fall back while a new set of techies scrambles to fix the website.

Next year, the states which have opted out of the Medicaid expansion will be left with only a semblance of the largely federally-funded Medicaid programs they once had, while the states that accepted the expansion will be flooded with the federal dollars that come with it. Support for the law is likely to increase in the states where it already is popular, and go down in the states where it isn’t.

The crystallizing moment in President Obama’s speech Monday came toward the end, when Karmel Allison, a pregnant, diabetic woman standing behind the president among a group of supporters of the law, grew lightheaded from the heat and the rhetoric and began to faint.

“I gotcha, you’re okay,” said Obama, who paused from his speech and turned to help steady her. “This happens when I talk too long.”

Obama might have shortened the speech by taking a few less swipes at the Republicans, who are hard at swiping each other. But he needed to put a steadying hand on the rollout and take responsibility for its failures. As Netflex goes, so should the president. You could say of this what you say of a lot of good political speeches, that they should have been given a lot sooner than they were.

Returning to the subject of colossal internet failures, those we’ve seen so far aren’t likely to be the worst. No sense getting all survivalist over it, but we should all probably think through what we’d do if suddenly we couldn’t text our kids or access our bank account on a laptop.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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