Carry a Big Shtick

Daily Best of the Web   —   Posted on May 6, 2014

The following is an excerpt from’s “Best of the Web” written by the editor, James Taranto.

Carry a Big Shtick
ObamaCare is a joke, the New York Times reports:

[President] Obama started his annual remarks at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner Saturday night with the recognition that the rollout of his health care website could have gone better, admitting that “in 2008, my slogan was ‘Yes, we can!’ In 2013, my slogan was ‘Control-Alt-Delete.’ “

“On the plus side,” he continued, “they did turn the launch of into one of the year’s biggest movies” (video screens on either side of the president showed the title of the hit Disney film “Frozen”).

The president finished his remarks by trying to show a farewell video. When it refused to load properly, Mr. Obama brought out his “fixer”: Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of Health and Human Services, the person most blamed for the botched health insurance website.

Obamacare also gave Mr. Obama the chance to tweak his political opponents as he wondered what it would take for Republicans to stop trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act: “What if it gave Mitch McConnell a pulse?” the president asked.

Ha ha, we get it. McConnell is old!

It reminded us of a presidential shtick from a similar dinner in March 2004. As reported at the time:

During the annual Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner this week, Bush presented a slide show of quirky photographs from inside the White House. In one, the president is looking under furniture in the Oval Office.

“Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere,” Bush joked. “Nope, no weapons over there . . . maybe under here?”

The Bush jokes, CNN noted, “brought little laughter to some Americans,” which is to say that “Democrats . . . seized on the matter, calling it astonishingly insensitive when Americans have died for their country in Iraq while the search for WMD has turned up nothing.” Terry McAuliffe, then chairman of the Democratic National Committee and now governor of Virginia: “It’s inappropriate to the thousands of people obviously who have been wounded over there. . . . We certainly should not be making light of the situation.”

As far as we are aware, no similar umbrage greeted Obama’s ObamaCare jokes, and far be it from this column to wax indignant about an attempt at humor. (We tentatively defended Bush in 2004.) Our purpose today is merely to explore the analogy.

The transcript of the Bush routine shows that he, like Obama, poked fun at a partisan adversary. Introducing another slide, he said: “Here I am trying to explain John Kerry’s foreign policy.” (Where’s Vox when you need it?) He gently mocked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Attorney General John Ashcroft for dressing stodgily.

He did not trot out Rumsfeld, George Tenet or Colin Powell to act as schlimazel to the president’s schlemiel in the WMD bit. Other than that, though, the analogy is striking.

By 2004 both public and elite opinion about Iraq had become polarized, as opinion about ObamaCare is today. To critics, the intelligence errors regarding weapons of mass destruction discredited the entire enterprise, which many of them argued could not possibly succeed. Supporters of the Iraq enterprise (including this columnist) thought the WMD question secondary and were still convinced that the change of regime in Iraq was a humanitarian triumph and would yield enormous strategic rewards.

Compare: “The really big policy news of 2014, at least so far, is the spectacular recovery of theAffordable Care Act from its stumbling start, thanks to an extraordinary late surge that took enrollment beyond early projections.” So proclaims former Enron adviser Paul Krugman in today’s New York Times, adding: “This is a problem for Republicans, who have bet the ranch on the proposition that health reform is an unfixable failure.”

Each president’s comedy routine, while ostensibly self-mocking, advanced an argument identical in form: that the most obvious (and acknowledged) failure of the administration’s most important initiative could be isolated from the whole, the success of which remained likely, if not inevitable.

It didn’t work out that way for Bush. Although he won re-election, political support for the Iraq effort continued to diminish, and Republicans paid for it in 2006. The really big foreign-policy news of 2007 was an extraordinary late surge, but that didn’t stop voters in 2008 from electing a president who was determined to reverse his predecessor’s policy, and did so.

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