Kathleen Sebelius is the Obama Administration’s Donald Rumsfeld, though the comparison is a little unfair — to Rumsfeld. He won a war and lost a peace. It’s hard to say yet, as Sebelius departs the Department of Health and Human Services, exactly what she’s won.
As President George W. Bush’s secretary of defense, Rumsfeld had something to prove in the Iraqi invasion. A nation the size of Iraq could be taken with a much lighter force than the U.S. military typically used, moving quickly, he theorized.
Rumsfeld was right. U.S. forces took Iraq with a fairly light “footprint.” But he hadn’t planned on sticking around for a long time and nation building. Keeping the peace proved to be what Southern soldiers call a “whole other thing.” Iraq was smeared in bloody sectarian violence. American voters blamed Bush for it. Bush blamed Rumsfeld.
The president forced the defense secretary’s resignation after the midterm elections of 2006 handed Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid the keys to the Congress. Bush then initiated “the surge” as a salvage job. This was a targeted build-up of forces designed by General David Petraeus that allowed America to stabilize the country before being shown the door in 2010.
Sebelius is a former two-term Democratic governor of Kansas turned HHS secretary. Her departure from Kansas for the Obama administration heralded the beginning of that state’s total takeover by Republicans. And I do mean total. Currently, Kansas’s governor, lieutenant governor, statewide officeholders, senators and representatives are all Republicans. The GOP overwhelmingly controls both state houses as well — 92 to 33 in the state house, 32 to 8 in the state senate.
Kansas is a Republican state that can swing Democrat. As head of HHS and the official principally responsible for rolling out Obamacare, Sebelius has done wonders to swing it the other way. This November, a whole lot of other states are likely to follow as President Barack Obama’s growing unpopularity drags his party down.
“If you like your health insurance, you can keep your health insurance,” Obama famously repeated over and over again on the campaign trail. No one worked harder to make that a lie than Sebelius. As HHS secretary, she had her hand in three choices that would prove disastrous for Obamacare’s prospects:
1. Under Sebelius, a devoutly pro-choice Catholic, HHS drafted a religious exception to the contraception and abortifacient mandate so narrow that one Bishop joked it wouldn’t exempt Jesus or his disciples. This triggered massive protest and yet another legal challenge to Obamacare over religious liberty.
2. Obama tried to demonize insurance companies over the upwards of seven million policies cancelled last year, but it didn’t take. Sebelius’s HHS drew up its grandfathering rules so narrowly that any little change over the past few years would trigger cancellation.
3. HHS decided to do most of the major healthcare.gov work in-house. The department unveiled a website that was a laughingstock. On the first day of enrollment, only six people managed to pull it off. It went down again on March 31, the theoretical deadline for mandatory enrollment without a fine.
Sebelius is touting 7.1 million-plus Obamacare enrollees as she leaves. Without diving too deeply into those numbers, let’s just note that the administration has played fast and loose with the figures up to this point. Early information indicates that this is an older, sicker, more expensive pool of enrollees than Obama had wanted.
And indeed most of the growth in enrollment came only after the Obama Administration realized what a mess it had on its hands. Obama started issuing delays, exemptions and waivers like a local pol throws out candy to kids at the founders day parade. He is trying desperately to blunt the political impact of Sebelius’s actions and salvage something, anything really, called Obamacare.
Obama’s would-be Petraeus is Sylvia Mathews Burwell, director of the Office of Management and Budget and a former hand at both the Walmart and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations. She sailed through Senate confirmation last year by a vote of 96 to 0. In the new confirmation hearings, she should expect rougher waters.