As the healthcare reform debate drags on and on and on, well past its freshness date, and long past the time Congress and the administration should have been able to move on, a disturbing pattern is emerging. It works like this: the “blue dog” Democrats fight real reform, on behalf of the insurance industry; the public, which widely favors a public health insurance option, fights back; pro-reform members of Congress in both houses, strengthened by public support (and by public attacks on their conservative colleagues) grow bolder, and grow in numbers, getting us closer to reform that will actually lower costs, and reduce the vice-like grip insurance companies have on our healthcare system; and then the Obama administration screws it up, insisting on “bi-partisanship” at all costs, protecting the blue dogs at the expense of the rest of the caucus, and attempting to strip down or strip away the most fundamental reform — the public option — for the sake of getting the vote of a single Republican Senator: Oympia Snowe, as if any sentient being would be fooled into believing that one Republican vote does bipartisanship make. .
It’s not clear whether the “bipartisanship above all” strategy is coming from Rahm Emanuel, who is essentially on record as wanting something –anything — for the president to sign, regardless of what’s actually in the bill — or whether the fecklessness is coming from higher up the food chain, including from the president himself. Barack Obama’s political director, Patrick Gaspard (full disclosure, he was one of our bosses when I worked for America Coming Together back in 2004) came to the White House from SEIU, a union representing millions of America’s healthcare workers, and a union that is one of the strongest proponents of the public option — so it’s puzzling that he has not exerted more influence on the president. I have no doubt that his former colleagues at SEIU are exerting plenty of pressure on him. But Gaspard has been literally invisible in this administration — and his strategy, assuming he has one, for moving the president’s political agenda forward, is a mystery at best. Instead, what we’re left with is the appearance that the White House wants one of two things, or maybe two of two things: 1) to be as hands-off as possible when it comes to letting Congress “do healthcare reform,” and 2) to only weigh in when they think they can gut reform to placate Olympia Snowe.
From the Huffington Post today, a report on the fundamental irony that the administration’s hands-off, retreat-based policy has created:
“The leadership understands that pushing for a public option is a somewhat risky strategy, but we may be within striking distance. A signal from the president could be enough to put us over the top,” said one Senate Democratic leadership aide. Such pleading is exceedingly rare on Capitol Hill and comes only after Senate leaders exhausted every effort to encourage Obama to engage.
“Everybody knows we’re close enough that these guys could be rolled. They just don’t want to do it because it makes the politics harder,” said a senior Democratic source, saying that Obama is worried about the political fate of Blue Dogs and conservative Senate Democrats if the bill isn’t seen as bipartisan. “These last couple folks, they could get them if Obama leaned on them.”
But with fundamental reform of the health care system in plain sight for the first time in half a century, the president appears to be siding with those who see the Senate and its entrenched culture as too resistant to change. Administration officials say that Obama’s preference for the trigger, which is backed by Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, is founded in a fear that Reid’s public option couldn’t get the 60 votes needed to overcome a GOP filibuster. More specifically, aides fear that a handful of conservative Democrats will not support a bill unless it has at least one Republican member’s support.
The president’s retreat leaves Reid as the champion of progressive reform — an irony that is not lost on those who have long derided the Majority Leader as too cautious.
“Who knew that when it came down to crunch time, Harry Reid would be the one who stepped up to the plate and Barack Obama would shy away from the fight,” emailed one progressive strategist.
On Thursday evening, after taking the temperature of his caucus, Reid told Obama at a White House meeting that he was pushing a national public option with an opt-out provision. Obama, several sources briefed on the exchange, reacted coolly.
Incredibly, the White House has essentially ceded control of healthcare reform to the Maine Senator, and devoted its only efforts to advancing Olympia Snowe’s proposals, including the utterly useless “trigger,” instead of the much more politically savvy “opt out” public plan, which would put 50 governors and legislatures on the spot, not to mention 100 Senators, who would have to explain to their states why they were not in favor of competition (which is why Ms. Snowe is not amused, I’d suspect, since she essentially represents Aetna, rather than the people of Maine, in the United States Senate.) It’s a stunning development for this president, who ran on “change we can believe in” and “yes we can,” but who now apparently has shifted gears to “change Olympia Snowe can approve of” and “yes we can, if Senator Snowe lets us.”
UPDATE: The White House tries to “fight back against the meme” with a pretty weak statement from the communications shop. Per Politico:
White House deputy communications director Dan Pfeiffer takes to the blog Sunday night to try to nip a burgeoning meme before it becomes the story of the week:
A rumor is making the rounds that the White House and Senator Reid are pursuing different strategies on the public option. Those rumors are absolutely false.
In his September 9th address to Congress, President Obama made clear that he supports the public option because it has the potential to play an essential role in holding insurance companies accountable through choice and competition. That continues to be the President’s position.
Senator Reid and his leadership team are now working to get the most effective bill possible approved by the Senate. President Obama completely supports their efforts and has full confidence they will succeed and continue the unprecedented progress that is being made in both the House and Senate.
…which translates in english as “the president continues to support the public option in his many public speeches to Democratic groups, but has no plans to fight for it, other than to fight for whatever version of it Olympia Snowe will vote for, or if she won’t vote for any version of it, for none at all. But man, those speeches are AWESOME!”