The cost argument wasn't working to marshal public support. But that wasn't its real failing. its real failing was that it didn't work to marshal Washington support. That, after all, was the audience. "Bend the curve" was a strategy with particular potency in the Beltway. People care about the deficit here, or at least pretend to. And the plan was to keep this in Washington: Pass the House and Senate bills by August, use the recess to reconcile the two pieces of legislation, and take a vote in September. That required a Washington-centric argument. It failed.Klein is a smart guy (this one and this one, both this week, are must-reads). And I'm not in Washington, so he may know more from his reporting than I know from following the reporting. But if he's right, the Obama team is dumber than George W. was ever accused of being. And I'd be very surprised if that was the case.
We're to believe that the administration actually thought that a bill in conference was going to be safe from August demagogues? Why? Yes, this is a tough month for Members...but would it be better if they already had votes on their records? Is it at all realistic to suppose that after tough fights in the House and Senate (and with a final tough vote still to come) that reform opponents would give up? No way. And while I have no idea whether it was planned or not, it's hardly surprising that Obama would have a different message for town halls in August than he had for (mostly) Washingtonians in June and July.
Also: is it really clear that the inside-the-beltway message failed? I'm not so sure. Remember, the targets weren't the Republicans; most of them had no intention of supporting the bill no matter what. The targets were the Washington establishment. Obama didn't have to win over the deficit cutters, but it was useful to at least neutralize them, and as far as I can tell he's gone a long way towards that. If he had spent June and July talking about benefits and other goodies, then Republicans might have had a lot more establishment support for claims of bankrupting the nation.
Instead, as Klein says, "The opposition hasn't found purchase making arguments about cost. They've found resonance with government control and rationing and death." Now, if true, how is that bad for Obama? It sounds to me as if he has (again, if true) knocked out one of the oppositions strongest argument, one that could have rallied a lot of neutral-sounding David Broder types. If opposition arguments are about "death panels," well, Obama and Congressional Democrats can simply drop the offending clauses from the bills-in-progress, loudly proclaim that they've listened to the people, and move on to pass the remaining good stuff -- and they can count on the mainstream press to support them in saying that, no, they're not really going to kill grandma. I think Obama would much rather fight on those grounds (and, of course, there really wasn't much that could have been done in advance to innoculate the bill against crazy made-up stuff).
I don't know what will pass, but I think Obama is playing the cards he was dealt pretty well so far.