Just assume a kayak and 2,756 miles' worth of stamina, and you're there!
Speaking of Fubar (as Green Boy was just below), about a month ago he passed along an off-site remark about Google Maps providing “driving directions” from San Francisco to Hawaii — including the awkwardly roundabout need to kayak from Washington state across the Pacific. My reply, based on that week’s progressive disappointment in the White House, was that President Obama must have used similar software in figuring out his escalate-in-order-to-withdraw strategy in Afghanistan.
Little did I know that despite my terminal procrastination in posting about that topic, the same half-hearted snark would be appropriate with regard to the state of healthcare reform… and even that requires a large quantity of optimism.
As you undoubtedly know by now (um, unless you’ve been depending on this blog to keep you informed of breaking news developments), separate reform proposals have passed in the House of Representatives and the Senate — with the latter bill’s benefits so thoroughly diminished that whether it’s any improvement at all over the present system is a matter of fierce debate in the progressive blogiverse. In fact, Obama himself is under intense criticism for having exerted so little visible effort to avoid the legislative emasculation that occurred in the Senate.
In Obama’s defense, though, this is a situation that he apparently planned for early on in the year, as Brian Beutler reported for TPM back in August:
Dick Durbin (D-IL), the number two Democrat in the Senate, says President Obama wants to move forward with some form of health care bill quickly, and then fight the fight over particulars in negotiations with the House of Representatives. . . .
“… we are trying to walk this tightrope to get this bill through. The House [of Representatives] is likely to include it [a public option]. The Senate may not. Then we go into conference committee and President Obama has to roll up his sleeves and see if he can bring us all together. And when I’ve spoken to him about this a couple times, all he’s said is: ‘Get me to a conference committee. Let me bring these folks into a room, and let me work and get it done.‘”
Okay, so the Democrats in Congress have gotten healthcare reform to a conference committee, as Obama claims to have wanted. Indeed, in his own comments on the subject, the president echoed Durbin’s language:
“… we hope to have a whole bunch of folks over here in the West Wing, and I’ll be rolling up my sleeves and spending some time before the full Congress even gets into session…. I intend to work as hard as I have to work, especially after coming this far over the course of the year, to make sure that we finally close the deal.”
The question is, rolling up his sleeves to do what? Conventional wisdom has already hardened that whatever comes out of the House-Senate negotiations will be essentially identical to what passed the Senate (even if that bill is at least slightly improved over its worst incarnation) — lest it fall prey again to the unpredictable whims of Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman as they threaten to join a Republican filibuster.
It seems like daydreaming at this point to imagine that Obama could move the bill in a more robust (and progressive) direction, then finally mount the bully pulpit, using the inherent popularity of a “public option” and similar features to pressure the centrist corporatist Dems into allowing a simple majority vote. And yet, Obama’s speech to Congress in September showed that he could move the needle of popular opinion on healthcare reform, if only he cared enough to try.
Another possibility is the strategy that Nate Silver outlined a couple of weeks ago:
… the idea is to “surprise” the Senate by unexpectedly introducing additional provisions under reconciliation once you’ve already got the main portion of the bill passed. Does this sound attractive to you? Well then, the best thing to do would be topass the bill as is now, since that is the first step in the strategy. To repeat: the most promising application of the split-bill/reconciliation strategy involves passing what you can now — not killing it.
Silver sees this as also being unlikely, but it was also proposed by wonk-blogger Mark Schmitt back in July…
Use the 60-vote Senate to pass whatever they can pass now — we liberals will grumble but live with it — and then use reconciliation next year to fix it. With the exchange structure and subsidies established, it wouldn’t be hard to add an employer mandate, which would save money. With the rudiments of even a weak public plan in place, it wouldn’t be complicated to expand it and modify its eligibility rules, in ways that might save or cost money but in either event, involve budget changes to an existing program rather than creating something new. Aggregating small changes over the next few years (on the model of the steady expansion of Medicaid engineered by Henry Waxman and others over the 1980s and 1990s) could non-controversially build the kind of robust and equitable system we dream of.
… and Sen. Tom Harkin, a public option supporter, hinted at it two weeks ago (“We have to get this bill passed, and then we’ll come back and revisit the public option at some point.”)
Assuming the House and Senate finish making their legislative sausage by Obama’s “State of the Union” address to Congress, wouldn’t it be something of a political masterstroke for the president to announce a plan to strengthen and complete the watered-down bill by passing an expansion of Medicare using budget reconciliation rules? That would be a classic example of doing the hard, unpleasant work during the off year, and delivering the most popular aspect of reform right before the 2010 elections.
If Obama lacks the chutzpah to even try that, instead settling for the cautious, least-resistance path of accepting whatever meager reforms the Congress will pass on its own, then he deserves whatever he gets — in terms of public opinion and a demotivated base going into the 2010 elections — for his failure to lead. Just standing by and watching as others do all the rowing isn’t enough; at some point, the president has to grab an oar, too, or we’ll never get anywhere.