The Problem With Jon Stewart's Obamacare Interview

| Tue Oct. 8, 2013 8:06 AM PDT

From First Read:

If you’re a Democrat and you’ve lost Jon Stewart, you have a problem. And that’s exactly what happened when HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius went on the “Daily Show” last night to talk about the glitches with the Obamacare website. “As the secretary sat down to begin the segment, Stewart opened a laptop on his desk. ‘I’m going to attempt to download every movie ever made, and you’re going to try to sign up for Obamacare, and we’ll see which happens first’”....We said it yesterday and we’ll say it again: The last thing you ever thought would happen is that Team Obama would have a website issue. These were the folks who pioneered how campaigns interact with voters over the internet.

Obamacare's website issues are obviously serious, but at the same time: give me a break, folks. I'm pretty sure the First Read team is well aware that Obama wasn't allowed to just call up his favorite web guru and tell him to get the old campaign team together and set up the Obamacare site. It had to go through the usual government procurement and bidding process, and was designed and created by whichever outside consultants won the job.

The NBC news team knows this, right? So why do they act like they don't?

As for Stewart, I'm not sure what to say. I watched his interview last night, and I thought Stewart was easily as big a problem as Sebelius. He decided to ask about the conservative talking point that it's unfair to delay the employer mandate while leaving the individual mandate in place, and Sebelius clearly tap danced a bit. But the big problem, as near as I can tell, is that Stewart was his usual unprepared self for this interview. Frankly, I couldn't tell throughout the interview if he even understood what the employer mandate was. This happens all the time, usually with conservatives knocking Stewart around because they know what they're talking about and he doesn't. This time it happened to be a liberal, but the result was the same: an incoherent interview in which he couldn't drive home his point because he wasn't really sure what his point was.

Following the interview, he made a gag about still not understanding what was going on, and then suggested that maybe Sebelius had been lying. That was really beneath him. Sebelius didn't do a great job of answering the question, but I sure didn't catch her in any lies. She basically told him that the employer mandate applied only to businesses with more than 50 employees (true); that most of these businesses already offer their employees health coverage (true); and that the number of people affected by the delay of the employer mandate was pretty small (true). RAND estimates that the delay will affect 1,000 firms and 300,000 people, about 0.2 percent of the population.

Now, is delaying the employer mandate "fair?" That's hardly a question with a factual answer, so I'm not sure what kind of reply Stewart expected to get in the first place. In the end, this was just another example of Stewart on his high horse again, and it's always been his least attractive persona, regardless of whether it's prompted by liberal or conservative outrage. Sebelius obviously tried to put the best possible face on the Obamacare rollout, just as all politicians do, but she didn't lie.

POSTSCRIPT: And why was the employer mandate delayed? The truth is that we've never gotten a definitive explanation. The basic answer is that the regulatory requirements turned out to be more complex than anticipated. The deeper answer is roughly the one that Sebelius gave: it was possible to grant the delay because the effect was tiny and didn't affect anything fundamental about Obamacare. Conversely, the individual mandate isn't especially complex and does fundamentally affect Obamacare. It can't be delayed without doing serious damage to the entire law. This answer might or might not be satisfying, but it's roughly the truth.

ANOTHER POSTSCRIPT: If you want a slightly more detailed description of what was wrong with this interview, and what kind of answer Sebelius should have given, Josh Barro has a pretty good rundown here.

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