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In Defense of the Bed-Wetting Liberal

Democrats freak out about every setback. And it's a good thing.

Stephanie Neal Photography

Now that over seven million Americans have enrolled in Obamacare, everyone who dismissed the goal as wildly implausible has some reckoning to do. And the comeuppance isn’t just for right-wingers, though that’s certainly the most satisfying variety. When Obamacare looked like it was faltering last year, Democrats from Bill Clinton down to the lowliest backbenchers deserted the administration. Liberal pundits proclaimed Obamacare’s problems to be “much deeper than the Web site.” Heck, this magazine brooded that the stumbles were a “threat to liberalism” and that “bed-wetting,” Team Obama’s term for Democratic panic, was an “appropriate physiological reaction.” All of us have become fat targets for sterner liberals, who gleefully point out that “the bed-wetters were wrong,” in the words of Time’s Mike Grunwald. Contrary to our darkest fears, Grunwald recently tweeted, “A lame website did not destroy the case for government.”

Well, fair enough. But I'd still like to put in a few good words for bed-wetting.

Here’s the thing: If your side is going to be rigorous and empirical, a certain amount of bed-wetting is unavoidable. Things really were kind of dark last fall. Had the administration been more casual about fixing Obamacare, the program’s numerous problems really might have set it back for years. Yes, these warnings turned out to be off the mark. They may have even been a touch alarmist. But they certainly could have been right.

In fact—and this is really the point—the mere spectacle of so many prominent liberals wetting themselves clearly helped focus minds in the White House, which in turn helped ensure that the dysfunction got solved. You think several dozen Obama administration wonks didn’t wake up on October 25, the morning Ezra Klein published his 2,000-word exegesis on the failings of Obamacare, and think, “Holy Shit have we got a problem”? Not coincidentally (at least not entirely), the New York Timesreported that “the sense of crisis and damage control inside the White House peaked on Oct. 30, as the president's top aides began to fully grasp the breadth of the political challenges they faced.”  

By contrast, just look at the way conservatives respond to their party’s looming disasters, and you quickly see the advantages of a little night-time incontinence. It was conservatives who, when the GOP leadership proposed a few no-brainer reforms to put the party on sturdier ground, went to elaborate lengths to show that the reforms were unnecessary. It was conservatives who, even as it became clear that Obamacare would enroll more than enough people to avert collapse, insisted the program was careening toward failure. They spared no fiber of intellectual honesty illustrating this point.

Pretty much the only time influential conservatives have piped up about the doom and destruction awaiting their party came on the eve of last fall’s government shutdown, which polls overwhelmingly predicted would damage the GOP. And even then there were as many influential conservatives egging on the Tea Partiers as there were yelling “stop.” A week into the shutdown fight, Rush Limbaugh announced that Republicans were winning despite the party’s “attempts to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”

Perhaps there's no greater testament to the virtues of bed-wetting than a comparison between conservatives’ relationship to the Romney campaign and liberals’ relationship to the Obama administration. Both camps had well-deserved reputations for insularity. Obama rejected pleas to hire an outsider with a technical background to get the federal insurance exchange up and running, insisting that the health care aides who designed the law were best qualified for the job. Though it was well-known within the federal health care bureaucracy that the exchanges were a mess, no one thought to inform the White House, and the White House didn’t think to ask.

For its part, Team Romney believed internal polls suggesting victory was in reach on the eve of the 2012 election, despite the widespread polling showing the opposite. The Romney campaign also believed it had a “better ground game” than Obama’s, despite the president’s vastly larger army of organizers and volunteers.

But whereas liberals went nuts when they finally saw how at odds with reality the administration’s internal narrative was, conservatives simply explained away the Romney campaign’s problems, going so far as to construct an alternate polling universe that had Romney cruising to victory. You saw how that worked out. (“Now I know what they were doing with all the staffs and ­offices,” Romney’s political director told the Boston Globe after Election Day. Mystery solved!)

Granted, there’s something to be said for Republicans’ refusal to “concede those crucial rhetorical inches that Democrats so often feel compelled to grant,” as Michael Tomasky has put it. There are times when what looks like a mess for an administration or campaign is simply ginned up nonsense, as with the non-scandal that was the IRS "targeting" of conservative groups. Liberals should give no ground in these cases.

Likewise, I’d argue that bed-wetting on the part of Democratic pols—as opposed to activists, pundits, and intellectuals—can be fantastically self-defeating. The suggestion by Bill Clinton and several Democratic senators that Obama let everyone keep their pre-Obamacare insurance threatened the program's survival.

But that’s only true of the pols and their operatives. Those of us who kibitz from the sidelines have an obligation to pipe up when we see trouble ahead. When we don’t—when we’re as delusional as the politicians we support, or when we repress bad news for fear of weakening them—we invariably subject them to much bigger disasters later on. 

The day after the administration hit its 7-million-enrollee goal, National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru turned heads across the Internet by pleading with fellow conservatives to “stop waiting” for Obamacare’s demise. “[I]’s clear now that one scenario with a lot of purchase among conservative opponents of Obamacare—that the law would ‘implode,’ ‘collapse’ or ‘unravel’—is highly unlikely,” Ponnuru wrote. Given how big a political bet conservatives placed on the death of Obamacare, this was pretty courageous. (And Ponnuru, to his credit, had written a version of it before.) But if a liberal had given her own side equally harsh advice back in October, it would have been utterly unremarkable. Her allies were writing much, much harsher stuff. It’s a big reason why liberals no longer feel the need to dispense that sort of advice today. 

Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow @noamscheiber