The troubled rollout of "Obamacare" has provoked something like soul-searching among Democrats, if not progressives in general. There's an inevitable defensiveness to some of the soul-searching, since Republicans want to use the Obamacare problems to prove their assumption that government is inevitably inefficient if not incompetent for purposes like this one. Overall, a failure to turn the economy around outside Wall Street has raised similar questions. The danger for liberals is that they'll come up with excuses similar to those made by other ideologues caught in practical failures. When liberals say that stimulus spending fell short of its social goals because the government didn't spend enough, for instance, or when Julian Zelizer blames politically expedient "public-private" compromises for rendering programs like the Affordable Credit Act too complex to be popular, compared to service direct from the government, there's a risk that liberals will sound like those libertarians who dismiss market failures by saying we haven't seen "real" capitalism at work, or those Marxists who dismiss systemic failures by saying we haven't seen "real" socialism or communism yet. In short, liberal pundits are trying to preempt attempts to blame Obamacare's problems on liberalism by saying that Obamacare isn't an expression of "real" liberalism. In cruder terms, it may sound as if they're saying there's no problem that can't be solved by throwing more money at it, or by putting government more completely in control. If that's what the apologists for liberalism mean to say, skepticism will be inevitable.
Yet Zelizer in particular has strong points to make about the historical and political factors that have mis-shaped the ACA and built weaknesses into it, compared to the clarity that has characterized Social Security from its inception. That won't make it any easier for Democrats to "go big" in the future, on Zelizer's assumption that bigger is better -- or at least simpler. They'll have to answer the charge that they only want to throw more money at problems, and they'll have to show that there's more to their demands than blind faith in liberal premises. They should have at least one advantage in such a debate over those ideologues to whom I've compared them. The problem with Marxists and libertarians is that the way things are done is an end unto itself for them. There must be free enterprise, for one, or there must be workers' control (or party control) for the other, and whatever benefits either group predicts from its preferred arrangements, those arrangements are moral imperatives to be obeyed regardless of practical consequences. Liberals are different. They may be perceived as ideologues by ideological antagonists, but they're really more pragmatic than that. Economic policy, I suspect, is a means to an end for liberals, not an end unto itself. The end toward which Obamacare was initiated remains popular; no amount of Republican carping, to my knowledge, has convinced anyone that the country should give up on the idea of making health insurance available to everybody. As long as Democrats and liberals emphasize the ends rather than the means, they should retain the advantage in any political debate over healthcare, and they'll retain some flexibility when it comes to the means. More importantly, perhaps, they may be able to make persuasive empirical arguments proving that for this particular end more government control, if not more government spending, may be the best means. They don't need to say more spending solves all problems to say that more can solve some of them. That should be more plausible than the dogmatic assumption that more spending solves none of our problems.As long as Democrats and liberals put themselves at the head of the pack criticizing and correcting the obvious practical problems with the ACA, they should be able to avoid the appearance of excuse-making altogether. All that should take is a willingness to be tough on themselves.