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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

WASHINGTON — Obamacare is working.

True, that sentence comes with a large asterisk. It is working in states that have followed the essential design of the Affordable Care Act, particularly in Kentucky, Connecticut, Washington and California. The law was written with states’ rights and state responsibilities in mind. States that created their own health care exchanges — and especially those that did this while also expanding Medicaid coverage — are providing health insurance to tens of thousands of happy customers, in so many cases for the first time.

Those seeking a model for how the law is supposed to operate should look to Kentucky. Governor Steve Beshear, a Democrat in a red state, has embraced with evangelical fervor the cause of covering 640,000 uninsured Kentuckians. Check out the website — yes, a website — for regular updates on how things are going there.

“We’re signing up people at the rate of a thousand a day,” Beshear said in a telephone interview. “It just shows the pent-up demand that’s out there.”

Beshear urges us to keep our eyes on the interests of those the law is intended to serve, our uninsured fellow citizens. “These 640,000 people are not some set of aliens,” he says. “They’re our friends and neighbors … some of them are members of our families.” As for the troubled national website, Beshear offered this: “If I could give unsolicited advice to the critics, and maybe to the media, it’s: Take a deep breath.”

Wise counsel. But there can be no denying the system failure that is a profound embarrassment to the Obama administration and threatens to undermine all the good the law could do, since its enemies will use any excuse to discredit it.

Much is inexplicable about how the administration blew the launch. Everyone involved knew that this is President Obama’s signature achievement. Everyone knew that the repeal crowd would pounce on any difficulty, let alone a massive set of tech problems so easy to mock in an age when everyone has views as to what an online experience should be like. Everyone knew going in that this was a complicated endeavor. It is very hard to understand how the officials in charge could risk ignoring the red flags they apparently saw before the site went live.

Some explanations, however, are obvious. The federal government was not supposed to be running this many insurance exchanges. You might have expected that Republican governors who cherish the prerogatives of the states would, like Beshear, welcome the chance to prove that this free-market approach to providing insurance coverage could thrive.

Instead, bowing to Tea Party obstructionism, most Republican governors took a powder. According to the Commonwealth Fund, only 16 states, plus the District of Columbia, have fully state-run marketplaces. Among the remaining 34 states, 19 are fully in the federally run marketplace, seven states have state-federal partnerships, and another seven are helping manage federally facilitated marketplaces. Utah is running a small-business marketplace, leaving individual plans to the feds.

Needless to say, the federal government wasn’t ready for this staggeringly complex task. Consider that individual states didn’t have to worry about any other jurisdiction’s insurance laws. The feds had to deal with sometimes vast state-to-state regulatory differences. I am told that an estimated 55 contractors and subcontractors had to collaborate on different aspects of the project. Reportedly, they all claim that their part of the enterprise works fine. It’s the interaction with the other pieces, they insist, that’s problematic.

Let’s imagine what a functioning political system would do now. First, we’d fix the site. Beshear and other governors are showing that the law can get the job done. Washington officials should look at the successful state exchanges and simplify the federal exchange as much as possible.

Second, Congress and the White House should use this breakdown as an opportunity to examine how the federal government acquires information technology. Are private contractors delivering what they’re paid for? Is the system biased in favor of certain big contractors with long-standing government relationships? The feds spend roughly $80 billion on IT systems. Are taxpayers getting their money’s worth?

But it would be unconscionable to give up on the goal of expanding the ranks of the insured simply because of tech failures. “They’re not going to walk away from this,” Beshear said of Obama administration officials, “and we’re not going to walk away from this.” Thus the spirit of a country that sticks with solving a problem, even when things get hard.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Photo by expertinfantry/ CC BY 2.0

At this moment, the president of the United States is threatening to "throw out" the votes of millions of Americans to hijack an election that he seems more than likely to lose. Donald Trump is openly demanding that state authorities invalidate lawful absentee ballots, no different from the primary ballot he mailed to his new home state of Florida, for the sole purpose of cheating. And his undemocratic scheme appears to enjoy at least nominal support from the Supreme Court, which may be called upon to adjudicate the matter.

But what is even worse than Trump's coup plot — and the apparent assent of unprincipled jurists such as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — is the Democratic Party's feeble response to this historic outrage. It is the kind of issue that Republicans, with their well-earned reputation for political hardball, would know how to exploit fully and furiously.

They know because they won the same game in Florida 20 years ago.

During that ultimate legal showdown between George W. Bush and Al Gore, when every single vote mattered, a Democratic lawyer argued in a memorandum to the Gore team that the validity of absentee ballots arriving after Election Day should be challenged. He had the law on his side in that particular instance — but not the politics.

As soon as the Republicans got hold of that memo, they realized that it was explosive. Why? Many of the late ballots the Democrats aimed to invalidate in Florida had been sent by military voters, and the idea of discarding the votes of service personnel was repellent to all Americans. Former Secretary of State James Baker, who was overseeing the Florida recount for Bush, swiftly denounced the Democratic plot against the soldiers, saying: "Here we have ... these brave young men and women serving us overseas. And the postmark on their ballot is one day late. And you're going to deny him the right to vote?"

Never mind the grammar; Baker's message was powerful — and was followed by equally indignant messages in the following days from a parade of prominent Bush backers including retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the immensely popular commander of U.S. troops in the Desert Storm invasion that drove Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait. Fortuitously, Schwarzkopf happened to be on the scene as a resident of Florida.

As Jeffrey Toobin recounted in Too Close to Call, his superb book on the Florida 2000 fiasco, the Democrats had no choice but to retreat. "I would give the benefit of the doubt to ballots coming in from military personnel," conceded then-Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Gore's running mate, during a defensive appearance on Meet the Press. But Toobin says Gore soon realized that to reject military ballots would render him unable to serve as commander in chief — and that it would be morally wrong.

Fast-forward to 2020, when many of the same figures on the Republican side are now poised to argue that absentee ballots, which will include many thousands of military votes — should not be counted after Election Day, even if they arrived on time. Among those Republicans is Justice Kavanaugh, who made the opposite argument as a young lawyer working for Bush in Florida 20 years ago. Nobody expects legal consistency or democratic morality from a hack like him, but someone should force him and his Republican colleagues to own this moment of shame.

Who can do that? Joe Biden's campaign and the Democratic Party ought to be exposing the Republican assault on military ballots — and, by the same token, every legally valid absentee ballot — every day. But the Democrats notoriously lack the killer instinct of their partisan rivals, even at a moment of existential crisis like this one.

No, this is clearly a job for the ex-Republicans of the Lincoln Project, who certainly recall what happened in Florida in 2000. They have the attitude and aptitude of political assassins. They surely know how to raise hell over an issue like military votes — and now is the time to exercise those aggressive skills in defense of democracy.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.