Posted by: Jeff | September 9, 2009

Adventures In Armchair Political Advice

Joe and I will be recording a podcast on the public option and in reaction to Obama’s health care speech in a few hours. In the interim, I figured I’d throw in my two cents as to what Obama should try to accomplish this evening. For all the Sturm and Drang, there remains a real possibility of pulling a big win out of this mess. He can’t fix this all on his own – the real fight remains the one in the legislature – but he can set up the Democrats in Congress to spike this thing into the opposition’s court. Not that I’m an expert, but hey, we started this blog in order to pontificate. So here I go.

1) Sideline the Republicans. For my money, this is the most important thing Obama can accomplish tomorrow night. Liberals of all shapes and sizes have become increasingly fed up with Obama’s attempts to bring Republicans into the health care reform fold. And since two members of the “Gang of Six” in the Senate, Chuck Grassley and Mike Enzi, have made it clear they are negotiating in bad faith, I can understand the frustration.

But this long slog has placed Obama in the perfect position to claim, with complete legitimacy, that he has bent over backwards to be bipartisan, and that Republicans have returned his overtures with contempt and obstructionism. There is no guarantee Obama can convince a sizable majority of Americans that Republicans have no intention of acting constructively. So this is a high stakes gamble. But the evidence for making the case is there. And if he can pull it off, it will pay huge political dividends.

This would not have been possible if the Obama Administration had acted from the beginning on the assumption (now obviously correct) that the Republicans would never vote for reform in any form.

2) Move the conversation’s center of gravity to the left. This is basically a corollary to #1. If the Republicans are cut out of the conversation, then the Blue Dog Democrats become, by definition, the representatives of the conservative argument on health care. The debate becomes one between the left and right wings of the Democratic party. That would be a good thing. Ending the possibility of a bipartisan compromise with the Republicans removes a lot of political cover for the Blue Dogs. That gives the Administration and the Democratic leadership more leverage to push the Blue Dogs to the left.

The arrival of Max Baucus’ take on health care reform is also significant here. As a final version of health care reform, the plan is probably sufficient but not that great. But as a marker for what constitutes the most conservative-friendly form of health care reform, it’s very good. Since Baucus was the mastermind behind the “Gang of Six,” and the attempt at bipartisan compromise in the Senate, his plan is a good candidate for defining the right flank of debate. Obama should use it as such. If there’s nowhere to go from Baucus’ plan but to the left, that’s a big step in the right direction.

3) Explain the plan in a paragraph. Basically, what Paul Krugman said. For all the caterwauling about how complex the issue is, this should be a relatively simple task. Also, while I think Obama was right to stay out of the fray until now, the final bills in the House and Senate are coming into focus. The time has come for him to hitch his star to a specific set of policies.

On the off chance that anyone cares, I’d do it like this: There are three critical components to health care reform. Regulation, the individual mandate, and subsidies. Start with regulation. It’s the most popular component, and the one who’s need is the most self-evident to the public. No more rescission on the part of the health insurance companies, and no more denial of coverage due to medical history.

But left on its own, this new regulation will either bankrupt the private markets or drive premiums through the roof. So to prevent those outcomes we need the mandate. Everyone must kick in to the overall risk pool. This is the justification for requiring all Americans to purchase health coverage. And that’s important, because this component is shaping up to be the most politically poisonous of the bunch.

Which brings us to the subsidies. They’re the sugar that makes the mandate go down easier. Their purpose is to ensure no one is forced into the economically untenable position of being legally required to buy coverage they can’t afford. Again, Obama should define Baucus’ $900 billion price tag as the minimal amount necessary for making sure the subsidies work.

Yeah, I know, that was three paragraphs. But they’re short!

4) Oh yeah, and that pesky public option. I remain convinced it is not critical to reform. But Obama should push hard for it anyway. And it sounds like he will.

Three reasons why. One, it’d be a good thing to have, and if we can pull it off, we should do it. Two, along with the subsidies, it’s another component that can make the mandate more politically palatable. If the government is going to require that everyone buy coverage, it only makes sense to provide a cheap and effective plan open to anyone who can’t afford coverage elsewhere. This is how Obama should sell it in the speech. And three, we need the bargaining chip. There remains a big possibility the public option will have to be sacrificed. If it is, it should be to make sure those other three components make it through the legislative process undamaged. That means giving up the public option has to come off as a big sacrifice. Pushing hard for it tonight will set it up to play that role.



  1. […] Adventures in Armchair Political Advice, Part II First lesson we can take from this is that Jeff probably shouldn’t be a political advisor. […]

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