Friday, January 22, 2010

A passive-aggressive middle manager

It is time for Obama to show us if he is a leader or not. Right now, he is not leading on the signature issue of Democratic politics over the last century. Last night I received an email from Tim Kaine, asking for money for Democrats. He said:
There will be plenty of time to dissect this race and to apply the lessons learned from it in elections to come. But in the meantime, we will continue to work tirelessly on behalf of the American people, and we will redouble our efforts to lay out a clear choice for voters this November.
Utter bullshit. If they don't pass the health care plan that is in the House's power to pass, they don't deserve to be in power. That they are only feckless cowards, as opposed to insane autocrats, is not a winning position.

Balloon Juice Commenter Stroszek on Obama's passiveness:

The only explanation is that he’s trying to distance himself from this clusterfuck, believing that House Dems will take most of the heat for not passing the bill. But every second that passes, he’s looking less like a community organizer and more like a passive-aggressive middle manager.

I don’t think anyone in DC understands the magnitude of the backlash that’s brewing on the center-left.

Marshall: Hope Is Not a Plan
Martha Coakley and her campaign have been roundly, mercilessly and rightly ridiculed for getting caught off guard by Scott Brown's rapid ascent in the Massachusetts senate race. What's the excuse of the White House and congressional leadership for having no plan in place for what to do if Coakley lost -- a live possibility going back almost three weeks?
Marshall: Whatev?
I've been very hard on the House in this Health Care train wreck. But what we're learning now is that the White House does not seem to be lifting a finger to move things. From what we can tell, nothing. Robert Gibbs' statement at the briefing today seems to embody the White House's stance at a much deeper level than I'd imagined. They just don't seem to even want to hear about it.

Greg Sargent:

* Yes, it’s true that Obama hasn’t made it clear enough in the wake of Tuesday’s disaster that he still really wants an ambitious health reform bill. But the real question is this: How much longer will Congressional Dems blame the President’s lack of leadership for their own lack of leadership?

Things are looking pretty ugly this morning, with more signs that Dems are close to folding:

* Some Dems have actually begun to imagine that they’ll be able to present it as a victory if they concoct a new, dramatically scaled back health bill to win over some Republicans. They’re saying they’ll be able to take credit for having produced bipartisan cooperation!

* Yep, some Dems have actually begun to imagine that a pared-back bill will allow them to argue that their health care reform push wasn’t a catastrophic failure.

* But Henry Waxman keeps pushing for “reconciliation” process: “It’s a perfectly legitimate procedure under the rules. What’s amazing to me is that a majority in the Congress can’t work its will.”


* Joe Klein offers a hierarchy of blame for the current health care reform fiasco. And he says Republicans themselves are the “death panels.”

DougJ: Just do it


A message to House Democrats: This is your moment of truth. You can do the right thing and pass the Senate health care bill. Or you can look for an easy way out, make excuses and fail the test of history.
Krugman: Do the Right Thing

A message to House Democrats: This is your moment of truth. You can do the right thing and pass the Senate health care bill. Or you can look for an easy way out, make excuses and fail the test of history.

Tuesday’s Republican victory in the Massachusetts special election means that Democrats can’t send a modified health care bill back to the Senate. That’s a shame because the bill that would have emerged from House-Senate negotiations would have been better than the bill the Senate has already passed. But the Senate bill is much, much better than nothing. And all that has to happen to make it law is for the House to pass the same bill, and send it to President Obama’s desk.

Right now, Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, says that she doesn’t have the votes to pass the Senate bill. But there is no good alternative.

Some are urging Democrats to scale back their proposals in the hope of gaining Republican support. But anyone who thinks that would work must have spent the past year living on another planet.

The fact is that the Senate bill is a centrist document, which moderate Republicans should find entirely acceptable. In fact, it’s very similar to the plan Mitt Romney introduced in Massachusetts just a few years ago. Yet it has faced lock-step opposition from the G.O.P., which is determined to prevent Democrats from achieving any successes. Why would this change now that Republicans think they’re on a roll?

Alternatively, some call for breaking the health care plan into pieces so that the Senate can vote the popular pieces into law. But anyone who thinks that would work hasn’t paid attention to the actual policy issues.

Think of health care reform as being like a three-legged stool. You would, rightly, ridicule anyone who proposed saving money by leaving off one or two of the legs. Well, those who propose doing only the popular pieces of health care reform deserve the same kind of ridicule. Reform won’t work unless all the essential pieces are in place.

Suppose, for example, that Congress took the advice of those who want to ban insurance discrimination on the basis of medical history, and stopped there. What would happen next? The answer, as any health care economist will tell you, is that if Congress didn’t simultaneously require that healthy people buy insurance, there would be a “death spiral”: healthier Americans would choose not to buy insurance, leading to high premiums for those who remain, driving out more people, and so on.

And if Congress tried to avoid the death spiral by requiring that healthy Americans buy insurance, it would have to offer financial aid to lower-income families to make that insurance affordable — aid at least as generous as that in the Senate bill. There just isn’t any way to do reform on a smaller scale.

So reaching out to Republicans won’t work, and neither will trying to pass only the crowd-pleasing pieces of reform. What about the suggestion that Democrats use reconciliation — the Senate procedure for finalizing budget legislation, which bypasses the filibuster — to enact health reform?

That’s a real option, which may become necessary (and could be used to improve the Senate bill after the fact). But reconciliation, which is basically limited to matters of taxing and spending, probably can’t be used to enact many important aspects of reform. In fact, it’s not even clear if it could be used to ban discrimination based on medical history.

Finally, some Democrats want to just give up on the whole thing.

That would be an act of utter political folly. It wouldn’t protect Democrats from charges that they voted for “socialist” health care — remember, both houses of Congress have already passed reform. All it would do is solidify the public perception of Democrats as hapless and ineffectual.

And anyway, politics is supposed to be about achieving something more than your own re-election. America desperately needs health care reform; it would be a betrayal of trust if Democrats fold simply because they hope (wrongly) that this would slightly reduce their losses in the midterm elections.

Now, part of Democrats’ problem since Tuesday’s special election has been that they have been waiting in vain for leadership from the White House, where Mr. Obama has conspicuously failed to rise to the occasion.

But members of Congress, who were sent to Washington to serve the public, don’t have the right to hide behind the president’s passivity.

Bear in mind that the horrors of health insurance — outrageous premiums, coverage denied to those who need it most and dropped when you actually get sick — will get only worse if reform fails, and insurance companies know that they’re off the hook. And voters will blame politicians who, when they had a chance to do something, made excuses instead.

Ladies and gentlemen, the nation is waiting. Stop whining, and do what needs to be done.

Yglesias: Scott Brown, Health Reform Lover

This is a great piece by Alec MacGillis in the Post, the kind of thing newspapers normally don’t have the guts to run:

While many are describing the election to fill the late Edward M. Kennedy’s Senate seat as a referendum on national health-care reform, the Republican candidate rode to victory on a message more nuanced than flat-out resistance to universal health coverage: Massachusetts residents, he said, already had insurance and should not have to pay for it elsewhere.

Scott Brown, the Republican state senator who won a stunning upset in Tuesday’s election, voted for the state’s health-care legislation, which was signed by then-Gov. Mitt Romney (R) and has covered all but 3 percent of Massachusetts residents. That legislation became the basic model for national health-care legislation. Brown has not disavowed his support for the state’s law, which retains majority backing in Massachusetts.

Instead, he argued on the campaign trail that Massachusetts had taken care of its own uninsured, and it would not be in the state’s interest to contribute to an effort to cover the uninsured nationwide.

“We have insurance here in Massachusetts,” he said in a campaign debate. “I’m not going to be subsidizing for the next three, five years, pick a number, subsidizing what other states have failed to do.”

Look around the world. There’s noplace—not Canada, not England, not France, not Massachusetts, not Taiwan, not anywhere—where the implementation of a universal health care system leads to backlash and repeal. Instead it leads to the local conservative political party becoming a fan of universal health care.

Update This is very relevant to the issue Ed Kilgore is talking about here. The question of whether passing health reform will inflame an angry public is different from the issue of whether or not health reform legislation polls well right now. The evidence from around the world, and in particular from Massachusetts, suggests that people get very attached to universal health care plans very quickly.
Yglesias: The “Never Takes Responsibility for Anything” Wing

One of the most frustrating things about self-described “centrist” Democrats is their general unwillingness to face up to the fact that they’ve been the dominant faction in the Democratic Party for decades. Jimmy Carter was a different kind of Democrat, a southern moderate. And Bill Clinton was a southern moderate in the Jimmy Carter mold. So was Al Gore. John Kerry hailed from a different New England liberal political tradition, but in 2004 ran straight out of the moderate playbook—support for both beginning and continuing the war in Iraq, incrementalism on health care, no serious cap and trade agenda, etc.

I think Barack Obama’s campaign sort of broke with that mold, as does Speaker Pelosi in the House, but the reality is that the pivotal members of the House are moderate Blue Dogs and the pivotal members of the Senate are moderates like Mary Landrieu. Consequently, governance in the Obama era has been determined by what moderates like Mary Landrieu are willing to do. Which is fine as far as it goes, but it means that if voters don’t like the results Landrieu doesn’t get to complain that someone else screwed things up:

Other centrist Democrats said the results in Massachusetts could become a blessing in disguise by forcing Democrats to rein in their legislative agenda and focus on less expansive policies than the health care overhaul now teetering with the loss of the Democratic majority’s crucial 60th vote.

“The loss in Massachusetts should serve as a wake-up call to the wing of the Democratic Party that wants the federal government to overreach and overspend,” said Senator Mary L. Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana. “We need to get back to the basics.”

You can easily imagine an alternate universe in which the Senate Democratic Caucus took an oath of party loyalty, that all 60 Democrats would vote for cloture on all leadership-supported bills, allowing measures to pass with just 51 votes. Had that happened, we would have gotten a bigger, more liberal-friendly stimulus. And the Senate would have finished up with a more liberal version of health reform some time ago. And the Senate probably would have passed some other liberal stuff in the meantime. Had that happened, and had the voters been displeased with it, then it might make perfect sense for Landrieu to complain about some non-Landrieu “wing” of the Democratic Party.

But in the world that exists, the only “wing” that matters is the Mary Landrieu wing. They decide how much stimulus we get. They decide their can’t be a public option. They decide their needs to be a months-long quest to get Chuck Grassley to offer “Republican cover” for a health care vote. Either the strategy is working better than the alternatives, or else it’s the Landrieu wing that needs to change things up. But defeats can’t be the fault of the people who haven’t been in the driver’s seat since the seventies.

Sully: Unrepresentative Democracy

Fallows notes:

Counting the new Republican Senator Scott Brown from Massachusetts, the 41 Republicans in the Senate come from states representing just over 36.5 percent of the total US population. The 59 others (Democratic plus 2 Independent) represent just under 63.5 percent. (Taking 2009 state populations from here. If you count up the totals and split a state's population when it has a spit delegation, you end up with about 112.3 million Republican, 194.7 million Democratic + Indep. Before Brown's election, it was about 198 million Democratic + Ind, 109 million Republican.)

Let's round the figures to 63/37 and apply them to the health care debate. Senators representing 63 percent of the public vote for the bill; those representing 37 percent vote against it. The bill fails.

I believe this health reform bill is as good as it will get in confronting a real and pressing problem. But the system we have is designed to prevent change. And that's the underlying reality here: if the governing political party is not united, and the opposition party is determined not to improve legislation but to kill a presidency, and exploit populism for purely partisan purposes, then it's very, very hard to pass major legislation.

1 comment:

  1. "If they don't pass the health care plan that is in the House's power to pass, they don't deserve to be in power. That they are only feckless cowards, as opposed to insane autocrats, is not a winning position."

    Yes. Thank you.