The “Public Option” Trap

Last Thursday, President Obama tried to contain a backlash among liberals concerned that the administration was wavering in its support for creating a new government-run health care plan, telling volunteers at his Organizing for America group that the uproar was a “manufactured” controversy.

“I think a public option is important,” he said. But he was also sure to emphasize that “There are a whole bunch of other aspects to health insurance reform.”

With opposition growing to Democratic health care legislation, it’s understandable that the administration wants to keep its options open so that it can declare victory by signing any bill that is able to get through Congress, even something far less ambitious than what Obama wants. But it is surprising that the White House wasn’t prepared for the passionate response to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’s statement that a government-run plan was not an “essential element” of health care legislation.

The Washington Post quoted an anonymous senior White House adviser as saying, in reference to the creation of a new government-run plan, “I don’t understand why the left of the left has decided that this is their Waterloo.” The adviser added, “We’ve gotten to this point where health care on the left is determined by the breadth of the public option. I don’t understand how that has become the measure of whether what we achieve is health-care reform.”

It’s perplexing that the White House was caught off guard given that liberal activists were essential to helping Obama organize a successful presidential campaign. Anybody who has kept half an ear to the progressive community for the past several years knows how essential the creation of a new government-run plan is to liberals.

“It’s not like a decal on a car,” Jacob Hacker, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and the intellectual architect of the idea, said at the March 2008 conference of the Campaign for America’s Future. “It’s the engine of the car.”

Throughout the health care debate a majority of the members of the 80-member House Progressive Caucus have maintained that they would not vote for any bill that did not include a “robust” government plan.

And during a conference call last Thursday, Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, a co-chair of the group, said that he had commitments from more than 60 members of the House that they would not vote for a bill that did not include a strong government plan, enough to block its passage. “That’s the understanding: no public option, no support,” he said on the call, sponsored by the Campaign for America’s Future.

Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, who was also on the call, explained the opposition to a bill without a government plan: “We meant that not just in getting it through committees, but we mean it for the House floor, and we mean it when it comes back from conference (with the Senate).”

But North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad, a Democrat who has been deeply involved in health care negotiations, has said that “It’s very clear that there are not the votes in the United States Senate for a public option.”

Taken together, this means that health care legislation cannot get through the Senate with a government plan, but it can’t pass in the House without one.

Recent polling on the issue reinforces how difficult it will be for Obama to resolve this issue in the coming months. An NBC news poll found that a plurality of 47 percent of Americans opposed the creation of a new government-run plan to be offered on a government-run insurance exchange, compared with 43 percent who support it. Yet at the same time, a Rasmussen poll found that if a government plan is not included, support for health care legislation actually drops — to 34 percent. The explanation is that a majority of independents and Republicans don’t support legislation either way, but ditching the government plan means an erosion of support among the Democratic base. 

Another problem Obama will face is that right now, many of the liberal activists fighting for health care legislation are doing so because they want a government plan. If that is tossed aside, it will deprive Obama — at a crucial time — of an army of people who are writing and calling their members of Congress, while opponents remain unified. Rasmussen found that without the government plan, just 9 percent of people said they “strongly support” legislation while 37 percent were “strongly opposed.” So in other words, among the most passionate people on the issue, the ones most likely to lobby Congress, opponents could outnumber supporters by more than 4 to 1.

Obama is trying to keep his options open by arguing in favor of a government plan while refusing to draw a line in the sand, but eventually he will be forced to decide whether he will stand with or against his core supporters. It’s a trap that Obama created for himself by campaigning as a post-partisan president while promising to be a transformational liberal leader, and it’s one that he won’t be able to escape with lofty rhetoric.

Iran Appoints Suspected Terrorist to be Defense Minister

Eli Lake reports:

Ahmad Vahidi, nominated Thursday by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to serve as Iran’s defense minister, is a suspected international terrorist sought by Interpol in connection with a deadly 1994 attack on a Jewish community center in Argentina.

Mr. Vahidi, a former commander of the elite unit of the Revolutionary Guard known as the Quds Force, was one of 15 men and three women named to Cabinet posts by Mr. Ahmadinejad as he begins his second term in office. The choice is likely to further chill relations between Iran and the international community, especially Israel.

Disgrace

The Scottish government has decided to release Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi on “compassionate grounds” so that he could spend the last few months of his life with his family in Libya as he dies of cancer. This is so utterly despicable that it’s beyond words. The government has just given this animal the opportunity that he denied to the families of 270 innocent people he murdered.

Support For Health Care Bill Drops Even Further Without Gov’t Plan

A new Rasmussen poll shows that without the inclusion of a government-run plan, support for health care legislation drops to 34 percent, with 57 percent opposed. Dropping the measure does not win over those already skeptical of the legislation, it errodes support among liberals. It’s important to remember that all of those people that are on the left fighting for health care legislation — the unions, the activists, etc. — are fighting for the inclusion of a government-run plan. If Obama drops the idea, in other words, he loses the most passionate defenders of health care legislation — the people making the calls, organizing rallies, and signing petitions — and the most intense sentiment is among those who oppose his policies. Rasmussen found that without the government plan, just 9 percent of people say they would “strongly favor” legislation, compared with 26 pecent who expressed strong support just a week ago.

The Reconciliation Bluff

While the White House has been floating the idea of using reconciliation to pass health care legislation with a simple majority of 51 votes, it should be seen as an empty threat. Let’s even set aside the fact that it would be a declaration of war that would shut down the Senate, that it would remove any pretense that Obama is a post-partisan president, and that ramming an unpopular bill down the throats of the public is not a politically astute move. Even if Democrats wanted to risk all of that for the greater goal of passing health care legislation, they couldn’t do it. 

The budget reconciliation procedure has to be used for tax and spending matters, meaning that if the White House wanted to pass a bill in this matter, they’d have to drop provisions that are central to Democratic proposals. So, for instance, Democrats wouldn’t be able to create health insurance exchanges, to force insurers to cover those with pre-existing conditions, create a new government-run plan, pass the health, wellness and prevention provisions, and so forth. Nobody remotely serious thinks that you’d be able to pass comprehensive legislation in this manner. Democratic Sen. Kent Contrad has said, “The Senate parliamentarian said to us that if you try to write substantive health reform in reconciliation, you’ll end up with Swiss cheese.” Even liberal bloggers Kevin Drum and Ezra Klein have poured cold water on the idea. While Klein says that Democrats may still be able to move the ball down the field with reconciliation by passing some watered down legislation, I don’t think that makes any sense. For one, I don’t see how it would be worth Democrats risking all of the political blowback they’d suffer by using reconciliation just to end up with a swiss cheese bill. And beyond that, if Democrats are going to pass a bill without a government plan anyway, then liberals may as well drop their objections and vote for a compromise measure that they can pass the clean way.

So, with that said, I wouldn’t get too excited by this talk of reconciliation. It’s just an act of chest-pounding from a desperate White House that is watching its top legislative goal get ripped apart by infighting within its own party. I call bluff.

Fiorina to Explore Challenge of Boxer

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO amd McCain campaign adviser Carly Fiorina has announced she would explore a challenge to California Sen. Barbara Boxer in 2010. A July poll found Fiorina within four points of Boxer in a head-to-head match up, results that were touted by Sen. John Cornyn, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. But to get a chance at Boxer, Fiorina will first have to fend off a primary challenge from conservative assemblyman Chuck DeVore, who had tough words for her at a breakfast talk last week that was hosted by The American Spectator.

Rose Friedman, RIP

Rose Friedman, a talented free market economist who frequently collaborated with her husband, Milton, has passed away. The Friedman Foundation pays tribute. In 2006, the WSJ interviewed the couple, who met at a graduate economics class at the University of Chicago in 1932, becuase the professor arranged the seating alphabetically, and her maiden name was Director.

Government Plan Or Bust

Sixty liberal Democrats in the House have sent a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius saying that they would not vote for any health care bill that did not include a government-run plan. It reads, in part:

We stand in strong opposition to your statement that the public option is “not the essential element” of comprehensive reform. The opportunity to improve access to healthcare is a onetime opportunity. Americans deserve reform that is real-not smoke and mirrors. We cannot rely solely on the insurance companies’ good faith efforts to provide for our constituents. A robust public option is essential, if we are to ensure that all Americans can receive healthcare that is accessible, guaranteed and of high-quality.

And by “robust” liberals typically mean a plan that pays low, Medicare-like reimbursement rates to doctors and hospitals. 

On Sunday, Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad said, “The fact of the matter is there are not the votes in the United States Senate for the public option. There never have been…So to continue to chase that rabbit I think is just a wasted effort.”

Put this together and we could be heading toward a scenario in which a bill can’t get through the House without a government-run plan, and can’t get through the Senate with one.