Why Kathleen Sebelius Won’t Be Fired

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 21 2013 7:40 PM

Give Us Sebelius!

Conservatives are demanding that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius be fired—which surely means her job is safe.

Kathleen Sebelius
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

STERLING, Va.—The polling in the Virginia governor’s race turned against state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli months ago. The government shutdown was blamed on his peers in the Republican Party. (It didn’t help that Sen. Ted Cruz, whom Cuccinelli had praised lavishly, forded the Potomac for a campaign event.) His opponent, Terry McAuliffe, has endured multiple scandals, including a fictional one that led to two Associated Press journalists getting sacked.

“This launch has been a national embarrassment, but it’s just a symptom of much bigger problems,” said Cuccinelli. “I believe President Obama ought to fire Kathleen Sebelius.”

That got the loudest applause of a 20-minute speech in front of 200-odd Republican activists. A blonde, middle-aged female Tea Partier, who had spent the time before the speech telling people nearby not to talk to reporters, shouted, “Sebelius must go!”

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So Cuccinelli said it again. “Kathleen Sebelius ought to be fired.” Before the speech was over he’d called on the secretary of Health and Human Services to resign three times, and West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrissey (one of four AGs from other states who’d come to campaign with Cuccinelli) chastised Sebelius for “going to a gala” instead of agreeing to testify in front of Congress about healthcare.gov. When the speech was over, Cuccinelli was asked whether he was asking for something President Obama would never do, something not pertinent to a race for governor.

“It's very realistic, certainly given that people in his own party are calling for people to be fired,” said Cuccinelli. “I don't think it's anything novel for someone from the other side to say that, when all we want is competency. And because we did win some of the [legal] arguments, we still have this debate. The Medicare debate is an Obamacare debate. Having the exchanges is an Obamacare debate.”

Democrats fully expect Cuccinelli to lose this election, and they will make no personnel decisions based on his advice. He was actually late to the blame-Sebelius party. The former governor of Kansas has never tingled the conservative id as much as Attorney General Eric Holder or departed Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano (“Big Sis,” as the Drudge Report called her). Savvier conservatives have warned for years that the Affordable Care Act gives incredible new regulatory power to whomever happens to run HHS, but they trained most of their fire on the “Obama” prefix of “Obamacare.”

That changed in October. The disastrous launch of healthcare.gov coincided with the government shutdown; Republicans were slow to take advantage of the mini-crisis. It was really Sebelius’s interview with The Daily Show on Oct. 7 that made them see the roadkill bleeding out on the interstate. Jon Stewart started the segment by opening a Macbook and offering Sebelius a “dare”: “I’m gonna try and download every movie ever made, and you’re gonna try to sign up for Obamacare, and we’ll see which happens first.” By the end, Sebelius was struggling to convince Stewart—who wanted the law to work!—why it didn’t make sense to delay the mandate until the exchange site was at least as functional as a Geocities page.

Slowly, methodically, as the site errors persisted, Republicans lit into Sebelius. On Oct. 11, Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts called on Sebelius to “resign for gross incompetence” after “even Jon Stewart” saw through the failure of Obamacare. Five days later, at a congressional forum sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, multiple House Republicans told reporters to watch the Jon Stewart interview to 1) learn how journalism was done and 2) see how sensible the one-year delay truly was.

By this time, non-Comedy Central news organizations were running their own investigations into the site failures. (Slate, which has been gathering reports from people signing up this year, published their “site didn’t work” tales on Oct. 3.) The House Energy and Commerce Committee was asking Sebelius to show up on Oct. 24 and explain why the exchange site wasn’t loading Sebelius passed. On Monday morning, hours before the Cuccinelli rally, the same House committee issued a statement asking, “Will President Obama Call on Secretary Sebelius to Skip the Gala and Testify Thursday?” For the aid of lazy reporters, they attached a video of Sebelius getting interviewed by Jon Stewart.

Sebelius has agreed to testify before the committee on Oct. 30. That means nine more potential days of human piñata-bashing. Republicans are making up for two wasted weeks of shutdown politics, arguing that healthcare.gov’s disaster presages the collapse of Obamacare. They think they got a substantial assist from the president’s Monday speech, where his fellow Americans were asked to remember that Obamacare was “not just a website,” and given the phone numbers to call if the pages didn’t load. All that was missing, snarked Republican Study Committee chairman Rep. Steve Scalise, “was an offer for free T-shirts to the first 100 callers.”

And Obama’s speech probably was a favor to Republicans. Those crusades against high-level members of the administration have largely failed—Eric Holder has a job, Chuck Hagel has a job, and Susan Rise became national security adviser after Republicans thought they’d scalped her. Focusing on Sebelius gets the administration’s back up, because it has no fear whatsoever of congressional inquisitors. It creates the impression that one firing could right the program, like swapping out generals in Iraq kind-of-sort-of-won that war. 

“Congress should legally pass a one-year delay of the individual mandate,” said Cuccinelli at Monday’s rally in Sterling. The House GOP had just spent two weeks failing to do as much, but that was before the Big Glitch. “The big boys got their delay illegally from a president who waved his magic president wand. Didn’t know there was one, but apparently there is.”

David Weigel, a former Slate politics reporter, is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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