Friday, February 05, 2010

A gallon of water at bedtime for bedwetters: Obama's HCR prescription

Once again, Obama will not meet the cravings of ardent supporters of comprhensive health care reform. He simply refuses to step in aggressively and steer floundering  House-Senate negotiations for a "reconciliation sidecar" that would make the Senate bill palatable to the House.  As Jonathan Cohn outlined with perfect clarity last night, the basic structure of such a deal is as plain as the forever-postponed deal between Israelis and Palestinians. But Obama refuses to catalyze it -- now.  That's notwitstanding the litany of prominent Democrats --  Weiner, Sherrod Brown, Franken, Sanders -- openly exhorting him to weigh in decisively.

Obama wants to first step back and redress what he's acknowledged as errors in communication and process and rebuild support for the bill before asking House members to vote for it. He is gesturing toward bringing Republicans back in because he wants to expose the bankruptcy of their proposals; he is defending the passed bills' essentials; he wants also wants time to highlight Republican intransigence and do-nothingism on creating jobs and reforming the financial system.  The Times reports that Obama laid the strategy out at a fundraiser last night:
At the fund-raiser for the Democratic National Committee later on Thursday, however, Mr. Obama said that once Congressional Democrats had worked out their differences and settled on a final bill, he would push for a vibrant, public debate over the health care legislation. He said he planned “to call on our Republican friends to present their ideas.”

“What I’d like to do is have a meeting whereby I am sitting with the Republicans, sitting with the Democrats, sitting with health care experts and let’s just go through these bills,” Mr. Obama said. “Their ideas, our ideas. Let’s walk through them in a methodical way, so that the American people can see and compare what makes the most sense. And then I think that we have got to move forward on a vote. We have got to move forward on a vote.”

Mr. Obama said that Americans were apprehensive about the health care legislation because there was too much misinformation that he would now work to clear up.

It's Obama playing a long game again -- driving supporters of HCR insane with anxiety and frustration. While most of us fret that as the clock ticks wavering Democrats will panic more and "run for the hills," as Obama enjoined them not to in the SOTU, he seems to be betting on the opposite: that as time passes, the suicidal logic of running away from monumental legislation they already voted for is what will sink in.  Jonathan Chait has made this argument repeatedly -- originally last summer, when HCR was dying its first apparent death.(Chait, however, wants Obama to move decisively to get the deal done among Democrats.)

Perhaps not incidentally, Obama is calling Olympia Snowe's bluff.  During the endless Gang of Six negotiations of the Senate Finance Committee -- negotiations that delayed HCR passage long enough for the Scott Brown earthquake to stop it cold -- and in their aftermath, Snowe got much of what she wanted: weakened employer mandate, no public option, somewhat more generous subsidies for exchange buyers. But she opposed the bill in the end, joining her caucus while complaining that the process had been 'rushed' and Republicans shut out of it, objecting substantively to little more than the side deals with Nebraska and Louisiana that will be scotched in reconciliation anyway. So Obama is opening it up again. Maybe he'll offer her something she can't refuse.  Maybe he's betting on somehow creating enough pressure through a public campaign to peel off at least one Republican and obviate the need to alter the Senate bill through reconciliation rather than through the more conventional House-Senate merger process. But that may just be a bonus-points long-shot.  The broader aim seems to be simply to marshall public and therefore wavering Democratic support in the House and Senate for passage of a patched Senate bill.

We'll see how this plays out. To me, the strategy, assuming I understand it, exacerbates signature Democratic weaknesses -- lack of conviction, bailing before Republican brushbacks, stalling, dithering....I still fail to understand why Obama has not undertaken to first pass the damn bill and then roll out the heavy communications artillery.  But I'm still hoping that the event will prove him smarter than just about every other player -- including, of course, me.

UPDATE: I hope that Obama has something in mind like Truman's Turnip Day, explained by Fallows.

UPDATE II: Greg Sargent is troubled by the fact that last night Obama "acknowledged the possibility that [HCR] may not happen" in the passage below:
So there’s a lot of information out there that people understandably are concerned about. And that’s why I think it’s very important for us to have a methodical, open process over the next several weeks, and then let’s go ahead and make a decision.
And it may be that — you know, if Congress decides — if Congress decides we’re not going to do it, even after all the facts are laid out, all the options are clear, then the American people can make a judgment as to whether this Congress has done the right thing for them or not. And that’s how democracy works. There will be elections coming up and they’ll be able to make a determination and register their concerns one way or the other during election time (Sargent's emphasis).
I read this differently -- more as a threat, along lines of the parental, "Well, you could refuse to change you clothes and so stay inside all afternoon. That is a choice..."  But I agree that the ambiguity, the step-back, the "it's your choice" stance, are troubling.

UPDATE III: Ezra Klein, characteristically, offers both fresh insight and good sense in assessing the passage in Update II:
More important was Obama's insistence on a vote. This is the first time I've heard the president demand an actual vote, and I take that as an enormously positive step. As I've said before, the likeliest death for health-care reform is that it slinks quietly off the front of the agenda. If Democrats have to take a vote, they have to find a way to pass this thing. If they don't have to take a vote, they can let it die without ever admitting they killed it. I'd call this the news in the president's remarks.

I'm predictably concerned by Obama's unhurried attitude, and slightly puzzled at the new process he's hinting at. The president doesn't tend to pop off, so presumably there's something here. The White House wants the public to feel that this finished with an open process, and after the Q&A, they're pretty confident that the president can sit in a room and run circles around the Republican opposition. But though I'm seeing a lot of speculation about what that will look like, I'll refrain from commenting until we hear something concrete.

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