Tuesday, February 23, 2010

One More Time: The Numbers on Public Option

Grenn Greenwald claims a gotcha on Barack Obama:
President Obama, in introducing his own health care proposal, exposed a transparent, year-long sham. White House loyalists insisted for months that the president genuinely supported a public option...But the plan President Obama unveiled does not include a public option. If he were truly in favor of it, why would he exclude it from his own plan?  
Greenwald says that there are 51 Senators who favor a public option, so Obama (and the rest of the Democrats) have no excuse now that the Dems have no choice but to use reconciliation.  If they don't include the public option now, they must actually have opposed it all along.  Gotcha.

Or so Greenwald says.  Actually, I think there are up to four good reasons to believe that Obama's actions are perfectly consistent with his words  (which are that he fully supports a public option, but doesn't consider it necessary, and so he's not willing to sink the bill over it).

1.  It's really not clear that there are 50 votes for the public option in the Senate.  Greenwald refers to this list, but at least three of the 51 listed there (Webb, Warner, and Tester) are pretty vague.  One or more of the others might have really only been saying that they were willing to vote for a bill with a public option, even if they preferred a bill without one -- in a separate vote, they'd go the other way.

2.  As Kevin Drum points out, re-inserting the public option now would involve Harry Reid (and perhaps Barack Obama) breaking their word to the anti-public option Senators.  There are other bills, and Reid -- and Obama -- need to keep their reputations intact.

3.  Even if there are 51 votes for a public option, there may not be 51 votes for a bill with a public option.  That's because marginal Democrats are not at all thrilled with the prospect of voting for a bill against all Republicans and against the most conservative Democrats.  As I've argued from the start, it's never been clear that it would be easier getting 51 in reconciliation than it would be to get 60 (with Kirk/Kennedy) without it.  So it's very possible that half a dozen marginal Democrats would prefer a bill with a public option to a bill without a public option, but also would prefer a public-optionless bill supported by Lieberman, Webb, Ben Nelson, Lincoln, and Bayh to a bill with a public option and only 55 votes.  And no marginal Senator wants to be the 51st vote on this.

4.  Regardless of any of that, what we really have right now is a relatively non-controversial reconciliation bill and a very controversial bill that passed the Senate.  Right now, without the public option, the Senators do not have to cast a tough vote -- the reconciliation bill alone is mostly ice cream, not spinach.  That allows everyone to focus on the House.  And since the House and Senate hate each other, it's very helpful that the House can trust that the Senate has only an easy vote to take, since they're extremely unlikely to trust the Senate to take a hard vote.  Even if knowing that the Senate only has to take an easy vote is likely to make the House hate the Senate even more.

I have no idea whether #1 is true, but I do think that #2, #3, and #4 are all true.  And I think Obama's words are, in fact, consistent with his behavior. 


  1. Your fourth argument is very strong.

    Greenwald's argument ignores just how hard it will be to whip up the votes in the House. If Obama and Pelosi did their job the White House Proposal was crafted with getting the needed House votes as the top and perhaps only priority. Greenwald seems to think there was room for other priorities. I doubt it.

    Remember that Barney Frank said he would not vote for the Senate Bill. Barney Frank, for God's sake.

    The Public Option has a greater chance of happening if the first HCR bill doesn't has no Public Option. Funny how politics works.

    It is no great surprise Greenwald doesn't see this. He is a principled advocate. Advocates are absolutely necessary in our system, but they are a species not known for political acumen.

  2. Agreed with the last pararagraph of the previous commenter. I love Greenwald, but he's so much better when he sticks to the areas of his actual expertise, e.g., Constitutional Law (though he generally does a damn good job on the media, too).

  3. I think this post is too generous to Greenwald. For a media critic, he should know better than mind reading & ascribing motive without evidence. Not to say skepticism doesn't have its place, but there needs to be evidence.

    In my opinion, this (long) sentence blows his credibility on this issue: "As I wrote back in August, the evidence was clear(!?!) that while the President was publicly claiming that he supported the public option, the White House, in private, was doing everything possible to ensure its exclusion (!?!) from the final bill (in order not to alienate the health insurance industry by providing competition for it)." In August!?! I'd be prone to bury that sort of absurd and unfounded speculation rather than cite it a month later for a toldjaso. It takes more faith to believe that politics is all kabuki than to believe that it often isn't.

    I think when Greenwald was in law school he slept through Legislative Process & dreamed about Constitutional Law. His absolutism leads to a tendency to assume corruption in situations that votes & constituencies would explain just as well.


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