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Greenwald’s Gripe

I keep getting this Greenwald piece thrown at me in comment sections at HuffPo, and it serves well as a template for progressive anger at Obama over the state of the Senate health care bill. Indeed, one can find a “top eight” list of gripes:

As was painfully predictable all along, the final bill will not have any form of public option, nor will it include the wildly popular expansion of Medicare coverage. Obama supporters are eager to depict the White House as nothing more than a helpless victim in all of this — the President so deeply wanted a more progressive bill but was sadly thwarted in his noble efforts by those inhumane, corrupt Congressional “centrists.” Right. The evidence was overwhelming from the start that the White House was not only indifferent, but opposed, to the provisions most important to progressives. The administration is getting the bill which they, more or less, wanted from the start — the one that is a huge boon to the health insurance and pharmaceutical industry. (Emphasis mine)

While I admire Greenwald’s reporting on torture back in the dark days of Bushdom, he’s by no means an “insider” at the White House. His “evidence” for some claims, and his reasoning for others, leaves much to be desired. In short, Greenwald is seeing what he always saw. To wit, in no particular order:

1) The secret deal with PhRMA. Not only do you have to pick your battles, you have to choose opponents wisely. Previous attempts at health care reform have been consistently opposed by an unholy trinity of lobbying organizations: insurance (AHIP), doctors (AMA), and pharmaceutical manufacturers. Rather than attempt the impossible — defeating all three at once — Obama chose the strategy of divide-and-conquer. He wooed the AMA and cut a deal with PhRMA, leaving AHIP to fend for itself. We may not like this unsavory deal; we may say that it violates his campaign promises. But it has worked to get the bill this far, which is farther along than reform has ever gotten.

Is it awful of Obama to strike a deal and then uphold it? No, it’s practical politics. The last thing any politician wants is a reputation for not upholding his agreements. Moreover, any campaign statements Obama might have made don’t change the fact that companies don’t want to appear on C-SPAN, and you can’t “make” them.

2) Obama didn’t want the public option enough. Perhaps the public option has served to take incoming fire from the likes of Lieberman and Nelson. So what? I’ve consistently supported the public option myself, but that doesn’t change the fact that you need 60 votes for cloture to get a bill through Congress the normal way. The sausage-making process is a given even with reconciliation, which has its own shortcomings (more on that in a minute). The fact is that Obama has consistently asked for it, campaigned on it, has talked of its virtues, and just doesn’t have 60 votes right now.

That doesn’t mean it’s dead — it’s just not in this bill.

3) Obama wouldn’t play hardball. This is perhaps the silliest trope current among progressives at the moment. Suppose Rahm Emanuel had asked Harry Reid to play hardball with Lieberman; suppose Obama did decide to rip off his shirt a la Dwayne Johnson’s SNL sketch and do some face-smashing. While it might be cathartic to see, it still doesn’t guarantee 60 votes and quite likely damages the majority Obama needs for climate change legislation, financial reform, jobs bills, etc.

Hardball politics may sound like fun, but it generally doesn’t produce historic legislation anymore. LBJ comparisons are fine if you’re talking about the Congress of 1965, but we’re not.

You might post any number of scenarios. Obama could threaten to veto a bill that doesn’t include a public option, for instance; but again, that doesn’t guarantee 60 votes for cloture. In fact, it practically guarantees Obama would be forced to soften his stance as the legislation developed. Hardball isn’t Obama’s game anyway, and never was. Do you recall a single instance of hardball behavior from Obama in 2008? Me neither.

4) Obama and Emanuel fought progressives. For evidence, Greenwald and others point to this Ryan Grim post at HuffPo which declared that the White House would punish Democrats who didn’t support the war supplemental bill in August:

“We’re not going to help you. You’ll never hear from us again,” Woolsey said the White House is telling freshmen. She wouldn’t say who is issuing the threats, and the White House didn’t immediately return a call. [UPDATE: White House spokesman Nick Shapiro says Woolsey’s charge is not true.]

Woolsey said she herself had not been pressured because the White House and leadership know she’s a firm no vote. But she had heard from other members about the White House pressure.

Get that? One House member reporting what other, anonymous members have supposedly told her somehow equals evidence of hardball tactics. The White House denied the report. Which all adds up to the same thing as “anonymous White House sources,” i.e. fanciful rumors. Until we get hard quotes, I refuse to swallow this camel.

5) Rahm opposed attacks on Blue Dogs and centrists. Yes, he did — in August. At the time, there was no guarantee that reform would get even this far. Why antagonize the very people you need to win over? Once again, critics are proposing that being mean to Lieberman will make him suddenly behave himself and be a good Democrat. That’s just not realistic. The Senator from Connecticut has a mind of his own, he’s not up for reelection until 2012, and he’s happy to play martyr if need be.

6) Obama was a corporatist all along. Greenwald refers to a previous post at Salon:

The central pledges of the Obama campaign were less about specific policy positions and much more about changing the way Washington works — to liberate political outcomes from the dictates of corporate interests…

Fair enough. But I am still waiting for the gate-crashers to explain exactly how Obama was supposed to walk into DC and change the place overnight, magically fart a progressive agenda from his armpit, and cut off lobbyists from Congress through draconian new rules prior to the health care battle when Congress makes its own rules.

If Obama had taken that path, there would not now be any health care bill. There would instead be a never-ending war with Congress. If that’s the progressive agenda, then it’s no wonder we can’t muster a supermajority. We don’t deserve to.

Yeah, I want to see corporate personhood abolished. But I also want to see mankind walk on Mars. The potential is limited by the possible.

7) Obama took a hands-off approach. Guilty as charged. So what? It’s not like the bully pulpit gets to write legislation with his veto pen. The Constitution is very clear in these matters. Worse, we have seen what happens to the “hands on” approach (1993, anyone?). Congress balks at passing bills in which it has no stake and has done no work. Even if Congress does the work and has a big stake in the outcome, it doesn’t guarantee they’ll pass a bill anyway.

There’s a version of this trope among progressives that says Obama wouldn’t “take a stand” on the legislation, and there were these Blue Dogs just waiting for him to do so. I call bullshit — the idea that Nelson and Lieberman were just sitting there waiting for Obama to commit himself is simply ridiculous. If he’d said up, they would have said down, and we would have just gotten to the same place earlier.

8) Obama just wants a “win” even if it sucks. This one rings true. Guess what? That’s politics. It also doesn’t guarantee the public option will never happen. Which brings us back to the reconciliation question: if Reid and Obama had set out to use the tactic in, say, November, then Lieberman would have adjusted his own stance accordingly, possibly achieving even more mischief.

For the public option is certainly reconciliation material, given its cost-curve-bending and deficit-reduction aspects; but the exchanges, ban on rescission, 85% medical loss ratio, etc. are decidedly not laws you can pass through budget reconciliation, and the public option means nothing without them. By passing as much as possible the usual way, the public option remains an option.

Greenwald quotes Digby, who I very much admire, saying that the bill is now a giant sop to the insurance industry, and indeed that is exactly what reform looks like without a public option. But a bill with mandates beginning in 2013 or 2014 practically demands the creation of a public option.

Get that? Pass this bill, and a public option is MORE possible. Maybe progressives should think about that before we form a circular firing squad?

Adding: Ezra Klein agrees on that last point:

Reconciliation: Howard Dean and others on the left are saying that a better health-care bill can still pass through reconciliation. What is your take on this?

Ezra Klein: I think there’s no chance of it. First, the bill would likely lose the insurance regulations, much of the delivery system reforms, the exchanges, possibly the mandate, and more. In return, you’d get … what? A weak public option? Medicare buy-in? You’re talking about bulldozing the infrastructure of the bill so we can put back in some of the interior furniture.

But putting that aside, the politics of it are baffling. You go back to the drawing board. You’re closer to the election. You seem like you’ve suffered a massive defeat. Poll numbers continue to drop. There’s more industry opposition. Vulnerable Democrats want to move to jobs. There’s huge controversy over whether reconciliation is legitimate. The final bill will have parts that we can’t predict stripped from the legislation.

And aside from all that, if you think we can get these pieces in reconciliation, why not pass the bill and then go back and get these pieces in reconciliation? If reconciliation is a good strategy, it’s a good “and” strategy, not a good “or” strategy.

If reconciliation is a good strategy, it’s a good “and” strategy, not a good “or” strategy.

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  • Wolfe Tone

    Nah, you're still my friend.

  • Wolfe Tone

    Of course, I agree with you, so…

  • Marc Miyashiro

    Matt, I am still skeptical that a public option is more possible if this bill passes. The huge costs of the insurance mandate (robbing us to enrich the insurance companies) will hurt the middle class with no corresponding benefit. Sure, some currently uninsured will be helped, it won't get them out to vote. But the middle class will suffer, and (with much media complicity) they'll blame the Democrats. Cynicism and apathy will breed, not activism.

    If the Democrats had any balls, they'd force the Republicans to filibuster and keep them there as long as it takes — even if it takes the rest of Obama's term. I think people would respect that. I certainly would, and I don't respect them now. Based on there current performance — failing in spite of overwhelming public support — I don't think I'll ever trust my future to them again.

  • Stranahan

    So – you basically concede most of Greenwald's point but when say "So what?" Then after giving every excuse for Obama – he's not magic, nothing would have worked, etc – you magically claim that improvement is possible.

    That's not a response. It's lazy thinking and lazy writing. Matt, you've been wrong about the White House and defending them though the entire process.

    The fact is that Obama and his White House were fighting AGAINST the Public Option and real reform. The PhARMA deal is when we first caught wind of it. The fact that you failed to grasp the implications of the deal is why you've been so painfully wrong.

    You're smart. Get into reality and stop making excuses. Obama didn't try to get real reform in the same way he didn't try to get real financial reform – and for the same reasons.

    Obama hasn't earned your trust or loyalty. Stop being a sucker.

  • Wolfe Tone

    What's your solution to the "Obama Sellout?"

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