Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Attention, Barney Frank: Obama was the partisan warrior when it counted most

Scott Lemieux does a nice job rebutting Barney Frank's contention that health care reform was an inevitable loser for Democrats (and strategic error for Obama) because "When you tell [people with health insurance] that you’re going to extend health care to people who don’t now have it, they don’t see how you can do that without hurting them." So Frank told  Jason Zegerle in a long debriefing published this week. Lemieux, bemused that the normally combative and often courageous Frank would avoid that heavy lift, retorts:
This is – uncharacteristically — essentially an argument against most progressive change. Anything that challenges privilege and disrupts the status quo carries risk and disrupts people’s sensitivities.
Frank's anomalous pusillanimity with respect to health reform was evident at the crisis hour when Scott Brown won the special election for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in January 2010, ending the Democrats' filibuster-proof majority and thereby endangering reconciliation of the passed House and Senate versions of what became the Affordable Care Act.  Frank led the cut-and-run chorus, putting out  this statement on January 19:

I have two reactions to the election in Massachusetts. One, I am disappointed. Two, I feel strongly that the Democratic majority in congress must respect the process and make no effort to bypass the electoral results. If Martha Coakley had won, I believe we could have worked out a reasonable compromise between the House and Senate health care bills. But since Scott Brown has won and the Republicans now have 41 votes in the senate, that approach is no longer appropriate. I am hopeful that some Republican senators will be willing to discuss a revised version of health care reform. Because I do not think that the country would be well served by the health care status quo. But our respect for democratic procedures must rule out any effort to pass a health care bill as if the Massachusetts election had not happened. Going forward, I hope there will be a serious effort to change the senate rule which means that 59 are not enough to pass major legislation, but those are the rules by which the health care bill was considered, and it would be wrong to change them in the middle of this process.
For Frank to suggest that Democrats allow "respect for democratic procedures" to stop the ACA in its tracks when the House and Senate had already passed versions and there were means to legally reconcile them was deeply strange. This from a man who unforgettably explains the impossibility of bipartisanship in today's Congress (in the Zengerle interview):
People ask me, “Why don’t you guys get together?” And I say, “Exactly how much would you expect me to cooperate with Michele Bachmann?” And they say, “Are you saying they’re all Michele Bachmann?” And my answer is no, they’re not all Michele Bachmann. Half of them are Michele Bachmann. The other half are afraid of losing a primary to Michele Bachmann. So, no, there are maybe three Republicans I can work with, on a couple of issues, out of the thirtysomething on the committee.
Yet as of January 19, 2010, with the Democrats' heaviest legislative lift in a generation on the one yard line, Frank was willing to let Republicans decide what scraps of the health care reform bills they had relentlessly stonewalled and demonized should be granted passage.

Ironically, Frank damns Obama with faint praise for being too willing to work with Republicans, when it was Obama who ultimately turned around the panicked rout that Frank was leading. Eight days after Frank issued his statement, Obama exhorted his fellow Democrats in the State of the Union address:
To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills.
In his sustained defense of the pending bills in that speech, Obama might have been speaking directly to Frank when he addressed the political perils of healthcare reform. My emphasis below:
And it is precisely to relieve the burden on middle-class families that we still need health insurance reform. (Applause.) Yes, we do. (Applause.)

Now, let's clear a few things up. (Laughter.) I didn't choose to tackle this issue to get some legislative victory under my belt. And by now it should be fairly obvious that I didn't take on health care because it was good politics. (Laughter.) I took on health care because of the stories I've heard from Americans with preexisting conditions whose lives depend on getting coverage; patients who've been denied coverage; families -- even those with insurance -- who are just one illness away from financial ruin....

Still, this is a complex issue, and the longer it was debated, the more skeptical people became. I take my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people. And I know that with all the lobbying and horse-trading, the process left most Americans wondering, "What's in it for me?"

But I also know this problem is not going away. By the time I'm finished speaking tonight, more Americans will have lost their health insurance. Millions will lose it this year. Our deficit will grow. Premiums will go up. Patients will be denied the care they need. Small business owners will continue to drop coverage altogether. I will not walk away from these Americans, and neither should the people in this chamber.
And it was Obama who staged the marathon partisan combat -- civil to a fault, but direct combat in the end -- of the all-day healthcare summit for leaders of both parties on February 25, 2010 -- the kickoff for what became the final drive within the Democratic party to find a way to pass the ACA with no GOP support. At the end, Obama explained to Republicans at the table, and to the nation, why Democrats would proceed without their support if Republicans could not propose a way to cover the 30+ million Americans the ACA was projected to cover (the GOP 'alternative,' he noted, would cover just 3 million uninsured).  This was his endgame:
I don't know, frankly, whether we can close that gap [between 3 million and 30 million covered]. And if we can't close that gap, then I suspect Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner are going to have a lot of arguments about procedures in Congress about moving forward.

I will tell you this, that when I talk to the parents of children who don't have health care because they've got diabetes or they've got some chronic heart disease; when I talk to small business people who are laying people of because they just got their insurance premium, they don't want us to wait. They can't afford another five decades.

And the truth of the matter is that politically speaking, there may not be any reason for Republicans to want to do anything. I mean, we can debate what our various constituencies think. I know that -- I don't need a poll to know that most of Republican voters are opposed to this bill and might be opposed to the kind of compromise we could craft. It would be very hard for you politically to do this.

But I thought it was worthwhile for us to make this effort. We've got a lot of other things to do. I don't think, Tom, that we're going to have another one of these because people don't have seven, eight hours a day to work some of these things through.

What I do know is this. If we saw movement, significant movement, not -- not just gestures, then you wouldn't need to start over because essentially everybody here knows what the issues are. And procedurally, it could get done fairly quickly.

We cannot have another year-long debate about this. So the question that I'm going to ask myself and I ask of all of you is, is there enough serious effort that in a month's time or a few weeks' time or six weeks' time we could actually resolve something?

And if we can't, then I think we've got to go ahead and some make decisions, and then that's what elections are for. We have honest disagreements about -- about the vision for the country and we'll go ahead and test those out over the next several months till November. All right?
Frank might retort that the ACA was indeed tested that November, and found wanting. And that the partisan Supreme Court seems poised to make the political sacrifice for nought.  In response to which, I'd let Lemieux have the final word:
If not then, when? Comprehensive health care reform has failed repeatedly. Political conditions as favorable as 2009-10 are pretty rare. Essentially, Frank is arguing that the Democrats should just abandon serious health care reform..
Why,  Barney, why?
Damn, folks: if you're going to read something on this blog, please read about misrepresentation and misprision in the Supreme Court arguments over the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act:
Michael Carvin misrepresented the mandate in oral argument
The ACA offers catastrophic coverage: the AP notices
The bounded, minimalist way to uphold the ACA (Marty Lederman at Balkinization)
Go tell the justices: the ACA has a catastrophic coverage option
Thanks! If I'm being stupid about this, let me know.

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