Monday, February 1, 2010

The Pushback begins...

By pushback, I mean a pushback against the notion that Health Care Reform is dead. It ain't.

There are three really good articles on the subject this morning.

There is one downside, in's a bit of a circle jerk in that it seems that each article is referencing the other, but it's all good stuff. More to the point, it's all good news.

First is the New Republic's Jonathan Cohn:

Even the decision to focus on jobs, banking, and the economy right now--while letting the "dust settle" on health care reform--may not be quite the sign of retreat it seems at first blush. Many insiders have suggested to me that giving leadership a little breathing space to negotiate, and giving members of Congress more time to adjust to the post-Massachusetts political landscape, will ultimately make a deal more likely. In today's Los Angeles Times, Rep. Gerald Connolly, president of the House Freshman Democrats says that strategy may be working: "The more they think about it, the more they can appreciate that it may be a viable . . . vehicle for getting healthcare reform done."

Still, even some of Obama's supporters think he, or at least his administration, could be more acting more aggressively. They remain dismayed (as do I) that the administration didn't have a clearer plan for how to proceed with reform in the wake of the Massachusetts election--and worry, even now, that the prevailing attitude is to let Congress come to its senses rather than to bring Congress to its senses. "The administration's arms-length approach is a large part of the problem," says a senior Democratic strategist. "They have lost vital time and momentum. There is no excuse."

During Friday's cabinet meeting, President Obama apparently told his advisers that reform was on the two-yard line. That sounds about right. But it may not get over the goal line unless he, and the rest of the Democratic team, push even harder.

Then, there is the New Republic's other Jonathan, Jonathan Chait.

Most of the coverage you've seen elsewhere -- this L.A. Times article offers a notable exception -- has offered a more dire take than the two Jonathans'. Here's why I think most of those prognoses are too grim.

First, as I've been saying, the fundamentals have not really changed since the Massachusetts election. Democrats have already paid whatever political price they'll pay, having voted through a bill in both houses. They've already done the hardest part by far, which is overcome a Senate filibuster. All that remains is getting 218 votes in the House to pass the Senate bill and 50 votes in the Senate to fix it, mostly with popular changes. The big picture view is that the Democrats have a massive incentive to get this done, and the procedural road to accomplish that has not gotten any more difficult. Generally, though not always, politicians can grasp their political self-interest.

Second, the news coverage has mostly been ignoring the fundamentals, and instead has revolved around ground-level reporting in Congress. This presents a pretty unhappy picture: The House and Senate distrust each other, everybody's freaked out, various members of Congress are spouting off. This is an important part of the picture. But it isn't the whole picture. Members of Congress have an incentive to hold out and express their skepticism -- it maximizes their bargaining leverage, and protects them in case of failure. Most of the news reports covering health care made this same mistake in the summer and early fall. Story after story emphasized disunity and obstacles, which was the ground-level picture, when the important dynamic was that the Senate Democrats came together in response to Republican obstructionism and decided to pass a bill.

Third, the biggest hurdle is the House of Representatives. The House is a majoritarian institution that tends to act like a parliamentary party. The House doesn't kill the agenda of a president of the same party. It's not just the lack of a filibuster -- House members are not like Senators. One thing that struck me about President Obama's appearance at the House GOP retreat was the way the Republicans treated him at the end, mobbing him for autographs. Senators don't act like that. Very few members of the House have the ego to stand up to serious pressure and tell their president they're going to kill the centerpiece of his agenda.

Again, I'm not making a guarantee or anything close. Among other things, my scenario presupposes an intense, engaged White House lobbying the House at the end of the process, and that level of engagement may not materialize. And multiple things could go wrong. Another negative political shock, not even as large as Massachusetts, would probably be fatal. Still, I wouldn't bet against a signing ceremony.

Then there is the LA Times news Article that Mr. Chait referenced. Of course, it helps that the title is: Democrats quietly working to resuscitate healthcare overhaul:

President Obama's campaign to overhaul the nation's healthcare system is officially on the back burner as Democrats turn to the task of stimulating job growth, but behind the scenes party leaders have nearly settled on a strategy to salvage the massive legislation.

They are meeting almost daily to plot legislative moves while gently persuading skittish rank-and-file lawmakers to back a sweeping bill.

This effort is deliberately being undertaken quietly as Democrats work to focus attention on more-popular initiatives to bring down unemployment, which the president said was a priority in his State of the Union address on Wednesday.

It's far easier to negotiate quietly, out of the camera's eye instead of doing it when CNN looking over your shoulder.