As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Obama's Role In The Health Care Debate

Michael Tomasky says it's time for Obama to knock skulls over health care reform, and he's right. Congress will find this issue difficult to steer unless the President uses some of his political capital, because of the peculiarities of that institution.

Simply put, legislators are rarely courageous. They're not leaders. They're followers. They don't like doing risky things. They like doing things they know are popular.

Think about it. When a case emerges that puts a new twist on, say, child molestation, legislators rush forward with new laws meant to address the problem. The public will back them, and child molesters don't have a lobby.

But changing the country's healthcare system? That's big, and terrifying. It requires taking chances, doing things a new way. Legislators hate that.

In the healthcare case, we can add an ideological element to this. Democratic legislators currently in Congress now have served almost their entire careers during an age of conservative dominance. They've been trained over the course of two or three decades to hear and respond to certain dog whistles.

Lower taxes. Breathe out. Good. More regulation. Tense up. Risky. Free market. Smile. Good. Government. Clench teeth. Scary.

I'm telling you, legislators "reason" in those flash-card sequences. Then, the next thing they think of is their district or state, and they rarely think about the new votes a courageous stand might win them. Instead, they focus nervously on where they might lose votes (and local political, financial and editorial support) as a result of doing something out of the ordinary.

Third, they think of their Washington donor base, and exactly how much money taking an unorthodox position will cost them. Most of them know down to the dollar.

I don't think it's quite as bad as Bill Maher puts it, but yes, it's pretty bad. So Obama clearly has to get involved. And he's starting to do that, with a press conference coming up today, the ABC town hall (although that may come at the issue from the right), and generally a longer shadow cast over the debate. Whether he takes charge now or later, clearly he's edging in to take charge at some appointed moment.

For now, the White House should have as little to do as possible with the various legislative products. Let the committees absorb the blows of the bad weeks. Let the early coalitions present themselves. Let the Republicans show their strategy in the mark-up sessions. Let the CBO score all the different options. Let the legislature familiarize itself with different revenue options. Wait. Wait and wait and wait. Wait until Congress has pushed this as far upfield as it's able.

Then open up the White House. Then have Obama on TV. Then have Rahm on the phone with legislators. Then take Olympia Snowe for a ride on Marine One. The White House can exert explosive force on a piece of legislation, but it can only do so effectively for a short period of time. That was the mistake Clinton White House made in 1994. By the time their legislation was near reality, administration officials were so deeply involved that they couldn't add external momentum. It is not a mistake that Rahm Emmanuel, who watched it all happen firsthand, means to repeat.

But what form will this take? I don't see him as the guy saying "I will veto any bill that doesn't include X," which is what's needed at some point. I think this is a very innovative way to drive the debate, with thousands of horror stories that can be deployed to rebut conservatives or inform the press.

In a major new effort to throw Obama’s campaign apparatus into the push for health care reform, the White House’s political operation is set to launch a massive new online data bank of thousands of health care stories, which will be spread around the country via Obama’s extensive email list, officials familiar with the project tell me.

The new “health care story bank” — as it’s dubbed by Organizing for America, Obama’s reconfigured political and campaign operation run out of the DNC — is perhaps the most ambitious test case yet determining whether the technological apparatus that fueled Obama’s campaign can succeed in driving Obama’s governing agenda [...]

These stories, which OFA had been collecting on its Web site but had not released, will be disseminated to the massive OFA email list, in hopes that campaign-style organizers around the country will use powerful first-hand anecdotes to argue the case for reform — and to push back on opponents’ talking points. There will also be a tool that allow users to flag particular stories as deserving of more attention.

If you collect enough anecdotes, maybe the plural will in FACT be data.

As much as Obama can drive the health care debate, so can a Progressive Block. Conservative Democrats get so much purchase in Washington partially because the town is wired for conservatives, but also because they have the numbers and the will to stop legislation or allow it to move forward. Progressives also have those numbers, but not the will. Until Progressives align themselves, and say forcefully that no legislation will move without their satisfaction, nothing will change on the dynamic in Congress. Conservatives will hijack the debate and force concessions that water down the President's campaign agenda, one which the public voted for in record numbers

Time and time again, conservative Democrats representing between 10% and 25% of their chamber's Democratic caucus have formed a block, joined with Republicans, and successfully weakened, severely threatened, or entirely blocked key elements of the progressive legislative agenda. They were successful in every case despite the ostensible, public support for that agenda by the Obama administration [...]

Instead of 60 votes in the Senate, what progressives need is Democratic control of both branches of Congress, control of the White House, and a progressive block of at least 13 Senators and 45 House members that will vote against Democratic legislation unless their demands are met. What we need is our own version of the Blue Dogs and Evan Bayh's "conservodem" Senate group that is large enough, and staunch enough, to be able to block Democratic legislation by joining with Republicans.

We need this group to draw hard lines in the sand for the two biggest legislative priorities of 2009: health care and climate change. The group needs to make it clear that, if their demands are not met, then no climate change or health care legislation of any sort will be passed. Demands like:

Health care: A public health insurance option that is immediately available to all Americans.
Climate change: Restoring the EPA's ability to regulate carbon and renewable energy targets that surpass those put in place by China..

We actually have this in health care; the Progressive Caucus has vowed to vote against anything that doesn't have a strong public option. So I question the President-centric view of how health care can work. Progressives in the House can drive this as well.

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