Last night I, like many other bloggers, got my marching orders from the Obama White House. The liberal-blogger Bat Signal was sent across the internet in the form of a quote from an Obama conference call with bloggers -- health care reform is in peril and only the internets can save it.
"It is important just to keep the pressure on members of Congress because what happens is there is a default position of inertia here in Washington," Obama told prominent lefty bloggers in an invitation-only conference call. "And pushing against that, making sure that people feel that the desperation that ordinary families are feeling all across the country, every single day, when they are worrying about whether they can pay their premiums or not... People have to feel that in a visceral way. And you guys can help deliver that better than just about anybody."
Oui, mon capitan! Je get bloggin' right pronto!
Of course, there might have been a way to keep reform on track without calling on friendly new media to get the word out. President Obama, trying to avoid the mistakes that killed Clinton's attempt at health care reform, took a more hands-off approach to the issue by leaving the details up to congress. Imperial edicts handed down from the executive branch killed Clinton's plan, the thinking went, so letting congress take the reigns would make it easier to work out some sort of decent compromise.
But this strategy assumed the existence of something that wasn't actually there; Democratic congressional leadership that's worth a damn. This is especially true in the Senate, where Harry Reid seems in constant search of fences to sit on. Senate leadership would have to come from someplace else, because Reid's positively phobic of anything that doesn't have nearly unanimous support. And that leadership came from Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who may have almost literally been the absolute worst person in the world for the job.
It's become clear that Baucus has no interest in reforming health care in any meaningful way. His first step in moving reform forward was to rule out any Canadian-style single-payer plan. At initial hearings and meetings, advocates of a single-payer plan weren't invited to testify, to speak, or -- God forbid -- make their case in any way. At one point, 13 doctors, nurses and activists were arrested while trying to get some sort of attention from Baucus' Senate Finance Committee.
"Is Senator Baucus open to your ideas?," Sen. Bernie Sanders was asked on C-SPAN.
"To a single-payer idea?" Sanders answered. "No. Not in a million years."
It's tempting at this point to just call Max Baucus an idiot. His reasoning -- at least, it's the way he explained his position -- was that there was no hope of ever passing a single-payer plan, so why knock yourself out? We should just cut to the chase and push for the possible. Bothering the Senate with this harebrained scheme was just a waste of time.
That argument would have some merit, if Republicans were interested in anything other than the status quo. But, since the GOP's position is that the current insurance system provides "the best health care in the world," that's really not the case. If the item at the top of the left's wishlist is single-payer, the item at the top of the right's is no reform at all. Clearly, Democrats would wind up with some sort of compromise and Baucus had forced them into a position with no fall back. Had he signaled that single-payer was the preferred system, the public option would've been the fall back. Bonus, single-payer would've been a lot closer to a possibility. Not a realistic possibility, but one hell of a lot more possible than it is when you rule it out entirely.
For his part, Baucus concedes this was a mistake.
[New York Times, via Matthew Yglesias:]
He conceded that it was a mistake to rule out a fully government-run health system, or a "single-payer plan," not because he supports it but because doing so alienated a large, vocal constituency and left Mr. Obama's proposal of a public health plan to compete with private insurers as the most liberal position.
Feel free to shout, "Well duh!" as loud as you like.
"...Framing effects are important in politics," wrote Yglesias. "The public-private competition is supposed to be a compromise between the pristine vision of single-payer and the desire of private insurers not to be put out of business. It creates a situation in which insurers are challenged to prove that single-payer advocates are wrong, rather than simply assert it. But with no single-payer plan in the mix, this gets lost, and the compromise becomes the leftmost anchor of the debate. A single-payer plan couldn't possibly have passed, but I think having hearings on single-payer and having one committee draft a serious single-payer bill that gets a serious CBO score would have been a useful exercise. In particular, it would have focused the mind on the costs involved in rejecting this option."
All but the least realistic Republicans would've been left hugging the public option like a lifesaver. So, is this all the result of lousy leadership and incompetent political strategizing? Yes. But is this all the result of only lousy leadership and incompetent political strategizing?
As liberal protesters marched outside, Sen. Max Baucus sat down inside a San Francisco mansion for a dinner of chicken cordon bleu and a discussion of landmark health-care legislation under consideration by his Senate Finance Committee.
At the table on May 26 were about 20 donors willing to fork over $10,000 or more to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, including executives of major insurance companies, hospitals and other health-care firms.
"Most people there had an agenda; they wanted the ear of a senator, and they got it," said Aaron Roland, a San Francisco health-care activist who paid half price to attend the gathering. "Money gets you in the door. The only thing the other side can do is march around and protest outside."
As his committee has taken center stage in the battle over health-care reform, Chairman Baucus (D-Mont.) has emerged as a leading recipient of Senate campaign contributions from the hospitals, insurers and other medical interest groups hoping to shape the legislation to their advantage. Health-related companies and their employees gave Baucus's political committees nearly $1.5 million in 2007 and 2008, when he began holding hearings and making preparations for this year's reform debate.
"Top health executives and lobbyists have continued to flock to the senator's often extravagant fundraising events in recent months," the report tells us. "During a Senate break in late June, for example, Baucus held his 10th annual fly-fishing and golfing weekend in Big Sky, Mont., for a minimum donation of $2,500. Later this month comes 'Camp Baucus,' a 'trip for the whole family' that adds horseback riding and hiking to the list of activities."
As I said earlier, it's tempting to call Baucus an idiot. He may or may not be, but he isn't just an idiot and incompetence isn't the only explanation for his actions as chair of the Senate Finance Committee. Baucus has toned it down a bit -- he's stopped taking money from health care PACS -- but he's still taking cash from lobbyists and executives. Baucus ruled out single-payer from the git-go because that's what he was paid to do. It would've put all but niche-market private insurance out of business.
But, as I said at the beginning, Barack Obama shares some of the blame here. This isn't the same congress that Clinton had to deal with. Passing this off to Pelosi and Reid was practically a guarantee of suck. Better and earlier leadership could've changed things and he wouldn't have had to send out an SOS to the liberal blogosphere.
We could've been pretending to settle for a public option right now, instead of fighting for it.
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