Posted by: Jeff | September 11, 2009

The Speech and Ugly Reality

I’m much less impressed with David Brooks’ take on Obama’s health care speech than is Andrew Sullivan. Broadly speaking, Brooks’ notion that Obama’s speech represents a centrist pull-back in reaction to the polls doesn’t sell. The Republicans (Brooks’ own party, let’s not forget) are still calling on Democrats to scrap the whole thing and start over. Moderate Democrats are beginning to make noise that they may live with the public option. But perhaps this is just a testament to Obama’s skill as a politician. To a centrist Republican like Brooks, the speech came off as reasonable back-pedaling. To a committed liberal like me, it came off as a principled digging-in of the heels. At any rate, on to specifics.

First off, Obama did not bury the public option for the simple reason that he can’t bury it. If the public option goes six feet under, it will be the legislature that does the digging. Obama did the only thing he could do. He praised the idea of the public option to the hilt, putting forth a compelling and concise argument in its favor, and thus set up the progressives in the Congress to push for it as hard as they can. And by never saying the public option was essential or “a must,” he left himself a rhetorical out in case the conservatives do succeed in shooting it down. And it’s still not clear just what went on with that meeting between the White House and the seventeen senators who remain skeptical of the public option.

Then there’s Obama’s pledge that he will not sign a bill that “adds one dime to our deficits — either now or in the future. Period.” Call me cynical, but I’m betting this is just talk. The $900 billion price tag Obama cited, and which corresponds to the cost of Max Baucus’ more conservative bill in the Senate, is the bare minimum amount at which health care reform can still work. Drop below that, and the subsidy system starts to unravel, the mandate becomes too onerous a burden for too many, and reform comes apart. If that happens, the Democrats will have wound up passing a bill which makes the lives of the middle class substantially more difficult, and that is the kind of thing voters won’t forget.

The House bill Brooks compares this to is underfunded because it’s price tag is higher (in the $1 to $1.2 trillion range) and thus its subsidy system is more robust. And of course, the bills are not even finalized as of yet. New forms of revenue or savings may yet be agreed upon to bring the House bill into greater financial balance.

Furthermore, this is the first year of Obama’s presidency. If he winds up signing a health care bill which, like the one currently in the House, is underfunded by $220 billion, the majority of the voters will not care about that come re-election time in 2012. Which isn’t to say the Republicans won’t try to tar him for breaking his promise. It’s just that it won’t stick. The American people say they care about fiscal responsibility, but they do not mean it. This is precisely the kind of thing voters do forget. Lest anyone disbelieve me, recall that George W. Bush and the Republicans added several trillion to the debt during their recently concluded stay, and all got re-elected in ’04 as a reward.

In short, passing a bill that doesn’t work is a greater political danger for Obama and the Democrats than passing a bill that happens to be underfunded by $220 billion. And that is a far, far smaller shortfall, and thus something much closer to fiscal responsibility, than were the Republicans’ tax cuts, the War in Iraq, or Medicare Part D. Sullivan’s doubts in his post are probably on the money: The Democrats and the Administration will concentrate on putting the structure of reform in place now, then concentrate on cleaning up the financial books over the next few years.

So, Jeff’s modest prediction on the fate of Obama’s pledge to not increase the deficit: He will break it, because he should. And come election season, it won’t matter.

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