Has Obama Played Health Care Exactly Right? Does It Even Matter?
The White House's legislative strategy is coming under a lot of fire lately. Some observers think it's been too focused on bipartisanship. Others believe it overly solicitous of Congress. But congressional expert Norm Ornstein thinks that it will eventually come to be seen as quite wise:
The Obama strategy since his election has been based on a gimlet-eyed and pragmatic assessment of the prospects and limits afforded by public opinion and the political process. A naive president would have assumed that, after a landslide victory, huge coattails, swollen partisan majorities and a high approval rating, he could have it all -- and pushed hard and early for a far-reaching, soup-to-nuts upheaval of the health-care system. Obama and his strategists understood that would not work. ...
Enacting reform the way it should be done -- with broad bipartisan leadership support and broad bipartisan majorities -- was simply not in the cards in today's political universe. Bipartisan support was clearly a non-starter in the House, if less so in the Senate, but past experience also showed that finding partisan majorities, even with healthy margins in both houses, would not be easy. Bill Clinton had almost identical Democratic support in the House and Senate, but he could not find a formula to keep his partisans together. Trouble with Blue Dog Democrats in 1994 nearly derailed health reform in the House and slowed it enough to prove disastrous in the Senate. Ideological, regional and urban/rural splits always make uniting Democrats a challenge. In 2009, unlike in 1994, every issue has a filibuster line drawn in the sand, making the hurdle 60 votes more often than 50.
How to prevail under these difficult circumstances? The only realistic way was to avoid a bill of particulars, to stay flexible, and to rely on congressional party and committee leaders in both houses to find the sweet spots to get bills through individual House and Senate obstacle courses. Under these circumstances, the best intervention from the White House is to help break impasses when they arise and, toward the end, the presidential bully pulpit and the president's political capital can help to seal the deal.
No health reform bill can be enacted unless the House and Senate each pass a version, and that has been the single-minded goal of the White House. If the Senate has to resort to reconciliation, it can only work if more than 50 Democrats are convinced that it is the last resort -- that every effort was made to compromise to include significant Republican support. Thus, the White House signal on the public option. Once both houses pass versions, no matter how disparate, a conference committee can find a way to meld the bills -- no doubt with heavy White House input -- into one plan that goes back to each house for up or down votes. There, the pressure on lawmakers to support health reform will be much greater, as will the ability to break filibusters by urging all Democrats, even if they can't support a bill, to vote for cloture as a procedural issue.
The odds remain reasonable that a solid, if not dramatic, health reform bill can make it through this process and become law. Any bill, under these conditions, will be a major accomplishment. The odds have been improved, not damaged, by the president's approach.
Broadly speaking, I agree with this analysis. And whenever you hear someone complaining that Obama has given too much power to Congress, remember that the great complaint about Clinton's reform effort was that he took too much power away from Congress. We have a tendency to work backward when trying to understand why something is going wrong, and that necessarily leads us to think a lot about tactics. But it doesn't answer the question of whether the outcome would be different if the opposite strategy had been tried. Under Clinton, it was tried. And it failed. Obama's strategy has brought him a lot closer than Clinton ever got, although it's also been yoked to a much more modest piece of legislation.
It's also worth pointing out another problem with this sort of thinking: The passage of needed reforms shouldn't be predicated on perfect legislative tactics from the executive branch. Congress is supposed to want to solve problems, after all. Asking them to legislate in the national interest is not some sort of imposition, or break in the routine. They're the branch of government that actually passes laws and makes changes. The president, after all, cannot pass legislation over the objections of Congress. But Congress can pass legislation atop the objections of the president. If legislative progress is dependent on the perfection of the executive branch, this country won't see much progress, because presidential administrations are seldom perfect, and they don't have that much power over Congress, anyway. Our political system has to be more robust than that.
Photo credit: AP/Brian Snyder
September 1, 2009; 12:08 PM ET
Categories: Health Reform
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