Monday, October 26, 2009

End(ish) Game

We seem to have reached the stage on health care reform in which tempers are running short, and the White House is the target, as Ezra Klein reports:
I'm also hearing a lot of irritation from congressional Democrats at the mixed signals being sent by the White House. If the White House wants to advocate for the trigger, fine. If the White House wants to advocate for the public option, fine. But for the White House to host one meeting where they signal that they're uncomfortable with Reid's decision to push the envelope on the public option and then make a big effort to walk that meeting back after the left gets angry is confusing everybody.
My wild speculation aside, without a lot more information (which we won't get until after the fact), it's very difficult to know whether Obama is making the right moves or not. The bottom line, if reporting is correct, is that there are probably 61 (and maybe one or two more) votes for the trigger version of the public option, but only about 58 for the opt-out version with the remaining Democrats still in intense negotiations.

What can we say for sure? Very little, but not nothing. Ezra is no doubt correct that everyone who is not on the fence would like to know what's going to happen so that they can start positioning themselves accordingly. However, very few liberals would really prefer to accept a worse bill from their point of view now if a better one is available in a few days, no matter how frustrating it is to wait. And all Democrats would rather get any of the potential bills that are still alive than have the whole thing explode on them. If the price for that is waiting, well, then they will grumble a lot and pay that price.

As for whether Obama could actually affect anything with a more public posture, there's really no way to know, but good reason to suppose not. Again, there's much we don't know, beginning with the names of the remaining holdout Democratic Senators (Benen is betting on Nelson and Lincoln, but there are a few other possibilities) and what exactly they are holding out for. Presumably, however, they're not asking for strong White House support for the public option to get them across the finish line, and it's not clear to me how such a public stance would put decisive pressure on Senators from Nebraska and Arkansas.

Remember that over the summer liberals were convinced that Max Baucus was killing health care reform by extending the Gang of Six talks over several weeks; liberals were convinced that Baucus would eventually do whatever Grassley and Enzi wanted, but instead the Gang of Six procedure gave cover to marginal Democrats to support reform in committee. This situation now isn't exactly the same (presumably the delay is for real negotiating this time). However, the overall strategy of hard negotiating on the Hill combined with White House cheerleading that avoids support for any particular provision has worked so far, and it's not surprising that Obama is sticking with it. The bottom line for the White House has always been support for a public option combined with unwillingness to stake everything on it, and as frustrating that is for some on the Hill, for activists, and even for some reporters, there's no reason to believe that they should drop that line now.

(Update: I notice now that Drum has the same reaction as I did).

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