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 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. 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 at around 9 p.m. that the administration let it be known it was partially suspending the individual mandate in 2014 by exempting people whose insurance policies had been canceled. It didn’t even publicly announce its one-day extension of the deadline to get insurance by Jan. 1.
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 social justice. But it is also a hardship. That was the justification for this new dispensation. 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 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 avoid the worst consequences of the catastrophically poor design of the law, to give frightened Democrats some cover, to hope something turns up. 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 — historic. It’s as if Teddy Roosevelt dreaded the consequences of the Pure Food and Drug Act. Or if Franklin Roosevelt tried to wiggle out of the Social Security Act. Or Lyndon Johnson shot the Civil Rights Act through with after-the-fact exemptions. Syndicated columnist Rich Lowry can be reached at email@example.com.