A national television audience tuned in eagerly anticipating the moment. The air crackled with excitement. The countdown solemnly proceeded. And then it happened. It blew up on the launch pad. It exploded. In an expanding, billowing fireball, the Vanguard rocket intended to carry the American response to Sputnik sprayed burning fuel and debris across the south Florida landscape. December 6, 1957, was not a good day for the American space program.
The Affordable Care Act's roll out has not gone smoothly. No one should sugar coat its debut. The Healthcare.gov website could not sustain the volume that swamped it in the days after it opened for business on October 1, 2013. Some eight million people attempted to log onto either the federal healthcare.gov website or state-sponsored health-care websites in the first two weeks of operation and nearly all of them emerged from the process frustrated and defeated. It seems that even though the Congressional Budget Office had predicted large numbers of visitors -- estimating that some seven million people might try to enroll in the first three months -- the website was not equipped to handle this level of traffic.
Knowing that not only his presidency but the health and well-being of millions of Americans were at stake, President Obama prioritized the need to fix the website and it seems that the repairs are now working. News about the Affordable Care Act now accentuates its successes. On Monday, December 2, it was reported that perhaps as many as a million people visited the new and improved website. In a three-day span in early December, nearly 60,000 of these visitors actually logged off after obtaining insurance coverage.
Consumer Reports, which very publicly refused to endorse the healthcare.gov website when it opened for business in October, now extended its blessing. Nancy Metcalf, "Consumer Reports health care expert," strongly recommended the website: "It's terrific. I've tried it, it was working yesterday [December 3], through the busiest times."
Obstacles remain to be overcome, chief among them the continuing efforts to subvert and discredit the new system by right-wing politicians (more on that below). But for now, the Affordable Care Act is achieving at least its most important preliminary goal -- enrolling America's uninsured.
In comparison, the early space program did not go nearly so smoothly. The year 1958 was bumpy and uncertain. On January 31, the United States succeeded in launching Explorer One into earth orbit. But by this time, the Soviets had already launched Sputnik 2, placing a living creature -- the dog Laika -- into space. And on February 5, 1958, a second Vanguard rocket exploded, this time 57 seconds into the mission. In its eagerness to outdo the Soviets, the American space program then overreached. In August and again in October, the United States attempted to launch lunar probes. Neither launch succeeded in escaping earth's gravity, let alone come close to the moon. Pioneer 0, launched in August, exploded after only 73 seconds of flight.
What was the political reaction to these evident disasters? Dwight Eisenhower, the incumbent President, was a Republican. In late 1957, he had suffered a minor stroke. Both Houses of Congress were in the hands of the opposition Democratic Party. Clearly, if ever an administration was vulnerable, if ever a presidency stood at the mercy of its opponents, this was it.
Remarkably, after some initial public skepticism and doubt ("Adverse Publicity Harmful Abroad, Democrats Say", Robert C. Albright, The Washington Post and Times Herald Dec 7, 1957), focused principally on the decision to televise the Vanguard launch ("Butler Raps Satellite Publicity", Daily Defender Dec 9, 1957), the Democratic leadership resolved to be supportive. Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson -- who could be fiercely partisan -- was responsible for rallying his Party to the President's side.
Johnson understood that national security was at stake. "By dissension and narrow partisanship," Johnson warned ominously, the Congress could create an "insurmountable barrier" to success ("Johnson's Talk to Democratic Senators", The Washington Post and Times Herald Jan 8, 1958). If Congress did not adopt a stance of "non-partisan" cooperation on outer space, Johnson continued, it could set the nation up for a replay of Pearl Harbor ("Johnson's Now a Democrat Second", Robert C. Albright, The Washington Post and Times Herald Dec 22, 1957).
Success in space exploration was deemed to be above politics, a cause vital to American well-being. It was the Cold War, after all, and fear of the Soviets lurked always in the background.
But the United States today is confronted with a crisis that endangers perhaps even more immediately the welfare of the American polity. And that is the lamentable state of health care in the United States. How healthy you will be, how soon you will die, is determined chiefly by how affluent or how poor you are.
Consider: In a moving story in the Washington Post, reporter Michael Fletcher documents life in two adjacent Florida counties. In affluent St. John County, men live to 78 and women live to 83. In nearby Putnam County, men live to 71 and women live to 78. The difference-maker? Income and the access to the good health care that goes with it. Consider also: Nationwide, poorly-educated white men have seen their life expectancy decline -- yes, decline -- by three years, while their female counterparts have their life expectancy collapse by five years.
Demographic collapses like this just should not happen, certainly not in affluent nations. It happened in Russia in the 1990s, when the social breakdown that followed the collapse of the Soviet led to the massive demoralization of the people and the disappearance of basic social services. But life expectancy just should not collapse among broad segments of the population in a nation like ours.
The right wing has had nothing to offer on this crisis beyond some blame-the-victim rhetoric. Indeed, they have demonstrated that they are the principal obstacles to improvement and reform. To say this is not to be partisan or inflammatory. It is truth, as reported by no less an authority than Bill Moyers, on his website, billmoyers.com. There we encounter the story of a cancer patient who was refused cancer screenings because of his uninsured status and inability to pay. Finally, when his cancer fatally metastasized, he was able to seek the treatment of acute symptoms through an emergency room.
The right wing refuses even to acknowledge the class-based nature of health care and life expectancy. Instead, their message is a disconnected one about repeal. To log onto a right-wing news aggregator like Realclearpolitics.com proves the point. There we find Charles Hugh Smith gloating: "Obamacare is a Catastrophe That Cannot Be Fixed." We find Jack Kelly engaging in some alternate reality messaging when he writes: "Messaging Isn't the Problem, Obamacare Is. Carl Cannon boasts about how united the Republican Party has become on the issue of repeal. Philip Klein crows: "Obama Has Shown How a Future GOP President Can Gut ObamaCare." And, as Brian Beutler has shown, opportunities for mayhem and mischief abound in early 2014, when people begin to make use of their new health-insurance coverage.
Not one of this merry band of nihilists grasps the enormity of the health-care crisis confronting America. The life expectancy of the poor is plummeting -- for the simple reason that they are poor. Unlike Lyndon Johnson, unlike the Democrats of the 1950s, today's right wing is incapable of putting aside a narrow, self-interested partisanship in order to serve the nation's common needs. And that is to their lasting shame.