The stilt walker was the first clue that something strange had come to Washington. A few long blocks from the Capitol, with the dome in full view, a colorless midsize tent was ringed by circus performers, waving and beckoning tourists into something-or-other. It was Wednesday evening, and the street traffic was sparse, but a few tourists made it in, where they signed in with one of a dozen red-shirted, iPad-wielding libertarian millennials.
Then they were in—they’d made it to the Creepy Carenival. This was the big summer project of Generation Opportunity, the youth outreach group funded by at least $5 million from the Koch network to tamp down under-30 enrollment in health care exchanges. Over the fall and winter, they’d worked tailgates and raffled off iPads. Now, after weeks of promo, they’d find out if free food and circus games could be as popular as free beer. Perfect timing, too: The D.C. Circuit had just ruled their way the day before, arguing that Obamacare subsidies (which made health care plans affordable for middle- and lower-income people) were illegal in states that did not set up their own health care exchanges.
After a good-size crowd had found the tent, Generation Opportunity’s president, Evan Feinberg, took his place onstage. A tightrope-walking blade juggler took a respectful break behind him, straddling and listening, as Feinberg laid out the manifesto.
“Young Americans have been asked to pay as much as three times as much for their health care to get nothing out of it—to pay for an older, sicker generation’s health care,” said Feinberg. “To pay for an intrusive bureaucracy that we can’t trust.”
The crowd, ostensibly, was learning about this through games administered by confused carnies. Under-30s who played the test-your-strength game were handed a plastic hammer that couldn’t work right. A haunted hospital took them into a dimly lit health care future of cockroach-infested rooms, skeletons in waiting rooms, and a literal “death panel” that denied treatment before its bored-looking members (including “Creepy Uncle Sam,” the hydrocephalic viral star of GenOpp’s videos) took a lunch break. On the way out—before signing another GenOpp signup form—gawkers had to walk past a hall of “government health care” outrages, from the Tuskegee experiment to military lobotomies.
But outside, Feinberg was cheerfully proclaiming victory over Obamacare. “When the administration spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to convince us to sign up—of taxpayer money, mind you—we didn’t sign up,” he said. “They needed 40 percent of us; only 27 percent of young Americans thought it was worthwhile to do so. And that was when we were forced, with a penalty, to sign up.”
Did the crowd buy it? Unclear. One family that I followed and chatted with grabbed some free food and watched an acrobat before splitting, telling me that they were happily covered by the breadwinner’s job at a security company. A group of Air Force contractors who were taking a break told me that they were already against the law—it might cut into their Tricare one day—before they walked past the free cotton candy.
But the Carenival will go on tour anyway, and Generation Opportunity is going to be with us for a while. In a month of legal setbacks for the Affordable Care Act, libertarian foes of the law have celebrated and pressed their advantage. They are years into a sophisticated campaign of debating and gaslighting, aimed at making Obamacare unworkable through citizen boycotts and legal victories.
It’s been going well. Conservatives and libertarians—Americans for Prosperity, the Cato Institute—campaigned to stop states from setting up health care exchanges. After the 2012 Supreme Court decisions that allowed states to opt out of Medicaid expansion, the critics made sure that Republican-run states took the get-out-of-expansion-free card.