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What should Rahm have done?

Matt Yglesias thinks reports of the White House's power are overrated:

I know a lot of people out there on the Internet seem to feel that the White House could have saved the public option if only they’d put more “pressure” on Joe Lieberman, Blanche Lincoln, etc., or done some more “arm-twisting” as seen in colorful LBJ anecdotes. Do people think the administration forgot to use its magic pressure button to get Senator Nelson to endorse the deal? Or is it possible that a minority of legislators are relatively immune to pressure and blandishment from the White House?

Compare Nelson’s behavior to Arlen Specter’s remarks. Specter is from a state that went for Democratic presidential candidates in 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008. To stay viable, he’d drifted toward the center, which rendered him unviable as a Republican. So he became a Democrat. But his Democratic credentials are suspect, and there’s a credible primary challenger in the field. Specter is very vulnerable to pressure from the White House. Lieberman is in almost the reverse situation. Objective political reality matters.

Meanwhile, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee has a new ad attacking Rahm Emanuel, which seems an odd thing to do given that Ben Nelson still hasn't agreed to vote for this bill.

The issue isn't that people shouldn't attack Rahm Emanuel. It would just be useful if they were more specific about it. What, exactly, should he be doing, and what, exactly, would that strategy have done to change the minds of Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson, Olympia Snowe, etc? What leverage does Emanuel have over a Democrat in a state that hates Obama, an independent who was defeated in a Democratic primary, and a wildly popular Republican who's not up for reelection this cycle?

And more to the point, what leverage does he have over any of them when all of them no they can destroy health-care reform -- and anything else the administration needs 60 votes for -- simply by withholding their assent?

By Ezra Klein  |  December 15, 2009; 11:21 AM ET
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Reconciliation is leverage.

Posted by: adamiani | December 15, 2009 11:22 AM | Report abuse

Haven't you heard, Ezra. Barrack Obama is no George Bush, Lord of the Rift.

Posted by: arnold104 | December 15, 2009 11:24 AM | Report abuse

Yeah, I don't think reconciliation was the ideal way to go, but they never made it even a credible threat. Couldn't they have pushed forward a pared down reconciliation bill simultaneously that indicated that we were willing to go that route if nobody played ball?

Posted by: JWHamner | December 15, 2009 11:26 AM | Report abuse

Ezra I have a question for you. When you see quote-unquote liberals call for killing the bill despite the fact that that would lead to the needless deaths of thousands of people, how do you deal with that? I realize that the real villains in this story are incoherent hypocrites like Senator Lieberman, but the netroots hasn't covered itself in glory either (for example, cutting a deal with Senator Snowe on a triggered public option now doesn't seem like such a bad idea I imagine).

Posted by: reader44 | December 15, 2009 11:28 AM | Report abuse

Reconciliation. Threaten to take Joe's seniority and chairs -- he's nothing if not vain.

I've said it before -- millionaire white Dems are more concerned with civility than with us.

Posted by: AZProgressive | December 15, 2009 11:40 AM | Report abuse

Bush/Cheney would have had no problem getting THIS DEMOCRATIC CONGRESS to enact even a robust public option (had Bush/Cheney wanted it).

They easily arm-twisted dozens of Democrats to vote for things they publicly were against (e.g. Iraq War Resolution, Bush Tax cuts, No Child).

Obama is not leading. He is not using the bully pulpit to inform Americans of the benefits of meaningful health reform and the dangers of not enacting it. A true leader would get the public support he needed to put pressure on Senators he needed. Even Reagan was able to put pressure on Democrats by getting the public behind him.

Posted by: Lomillialor | December 15, 2009 11:41 AM | Report abuse

Whatever happened to Susan Collins? Last I heard, she had some reasonable demands that she was working with Democrats on. All the focus lately has been on Snowe, Nelson, and Lieberman - but what happened with Collins? Why isn't her vote in play anymore?

Posted by: madjoy | December 15, 2009 11:43 AM | Report abuse

all of that lack of leverage existed in February Ezra. they decided to GO for it, without FIGHTING for it. The bill as it is with no public option and no medicare expansion could have passed in July. It could have passed in frickin April. The President and his chief of staff failed at the one thing they're supposed to be preeminent at: persuasion. Now we'll have no cost controls, not even downward pressure, no safe, trusted choice for affordable heath coverage

As Representative Darcy Burner wrote last night:

"The House bill has two major cost-control mechanisms: the public option and the 85% medical-loss ratio requirement. The Senate bill is on track to have neither, and nothing new to replace them. The Senate bill is a recipe for national disaster. If it's that bill or nothing, I prefer nothing. "

Posted by: andrewlong | December 15, 2009 11:44 AM | Report abuse

And force them to actually filibuster. Force Joe to cast the vote.

Posted by: AZProgressive | December 15, 2009 11:44 AM | Report abuse

You say "Force Joe to cast the vote" as if you think he wouldn't have done that, or if the consequences of that would not be disastrous.

We got the best deal we could have. We have to live with it, and enjoy the fact that 20,000 people won't die this year who otherwise would have.

I'm happy with that.

Posted by: KathyF | December 15, 2009 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Kathy, you don't think we could spend hundreds of billions of dollars and save 20,000 lives some other way? Giving it to insurance companies, who will continue to screw people over, is an inefficient way of saving lives.

Posted by: AZProgressive | December 15, 2009 11:54 AM | Report abuse

How exactly would we spend hundreds of billions of dollars to save an equivalent number of lives without going through Congress, or going through Congress but having a relatively easy time of it?

Furthermore, aren't we past the "make them filibuster" arguments yet? Don't people understand after the countless blog posts that modern rules make it much harder for the Dems to succeed in such a situation?

Posted by: MosBen | December 15, 2009 12:01 PM | Report abuse

It was obvious in August when the Senate Finance committee was held hostage by Chuck Grassley and Lieberman and Nelson were starting to issue their filibuster threats that we would end up where we are now. Emmanuel and Reid should have just gone through reconciliation from the beginning like Bush & co. did when they wanted to pass major initiatives in Bush's first term.

Posted by: redwards95 | December 15, 2009 12:12 PM | Report abuse

If your point is that President Obama is weak and ineffectual compared to other presidents, then your argument makes sense. Obama doesn't have options at this point for pushing some form of public insurance through. Strong presidents prepare the ground and set themselves up to succeed, they set up leverage on recalcitrant Senators early in the process, not at the last moment.

I don't believe Obama is a weak president, I believe Obama is getting what he wants. We don't have a public option because Obama was never interested in fighting for it.

Posted by: tiburke | December 15, 2009 12:27 PM | Report abuse

tiburke, the call in this post is for people championing "leverage" to state explicitly what they mean. If you're going to Monday-Morning-quarterback, tell us what plays would have worked and why. What leverage was available several months ago but is no longer tenable? Why would the use of that leverage directly led to the senator in question voting lockstep with the party rather than force the senator in question to dig in their heels or to leave the party entirely? Is it possible that the relevant players considered your proposed course of action, but deemed it unproductive? Is there any reason to believe they had or have more information on the specifics than you do?

Posted by: MosBen | December 15, 2009 12:55 PM | Report abuse

I've got to say Ezra, though I appreciate you're commitment to underlining the political realities of policy making, I think you and Matt are maybe a bit too focused on the concrete machinations of pushing legislation through congress here and are missing the forest for the trees. I'll give the administration the benefit of the doubt that, behind closed doors, they've applied as much pressure as possible to achieve the most progressive legislation they think they can. But that's exactly it--the administration decided very early on to game out the most plausible endgame based on a lot of moving pieces and competing interests to secure passage of whatever bill seems doable--all behind closed doors. I think they've by and large refused to advocate for anything for fear of losing face and have grossly underestimated the importance of involving the public in the debate and forcing whatever interests who have a stake in influencing the legislation to do it in the light of day.

Posted by: surplusvalue | December 15, 2009 1:46 PM | Report abuse

"all of them no" -- I assume that's a tribute to Yglesias.

Posted by: cog145 | December 15, 2009 1:51 PM | Report abuse

Imagine that Obama had spent the last six months campaigning for health care reform - him and Biden and Michelle, each visiting cities, holding rallies, meeting with people whose lives have been ruined by lack of health insurance. Every paper in the country would have been running stories about the family in their town whose daughter died for want of an operation, whose son can't work because he can't get medication for a chronic condition, who lost their house to pay for treatment of a wife injured in an accident. Every local news broadcast woudl have been about the human tragedy of inadequate health care. We would have had public outrage over the stall and delay tactics and we would have had 60 votes.

But no, we had nothing. Alan Grayson alone couldn't do it. And nobody rallied to his side.

Don't tell me Obama has no "leverage." He has the leverage of the front-page above-the-fold of every newspaper in the country. He has the leverage of the lead-off story on every national and local news broadcast. And he didn't use it. He didn't lift a finger for health care reform.

Posted by: Bloix | December 15, 2009 1:55 PM | Report abuse

Political realities are made by political actors. The President was either AWOL (not acting) in this fight or didn't care what the content of a bill called "health care reform" looked like so long as there was something with that label.

Obviously placating existing insurance and medical interests was more important to all the political actors than caring for sick people. They allowed those interests to define the terrain of the possible. These useless "pseudo-leaders" are going to have a very difficult time getting the Democratic base to do much of anything for them. That may be dumb, but enabling spite has a bounceback effect.

Posted by: janinsanfran | December 15, 2009 1:59 PM | Report abuse

AZProgressive: I spent a lot of time explaining to my Republican friends who opposed HCR about the "three legged stool" of health care reform. I did think that informed Dems understood that concept, especially ones who advocated Hillary Clinton's mandate plan for HCR during the primaries.

Look it up. We get insurance reform that prevents insurance companies from discriminating, they get the mandate that provides them with new clients. The patients, however, get their bills paid. It's a little more complicated than that, so again, look it up.

The deal could have been better, but there was still that three legged stool to deal with.

Posted by: KathyF | December 15, 2009 2:07 PM | Report abuse

Who cares what Rahm should have done?
I care what Obama should have done.
And Obama should have LED.
And Ezra should have removed his nose from Obama's you know what.

Posted by: kmblue | December 15, 2009 2:17 PM | Report abuse

Reconciliation honestly should have been a backup alternative all along, to the point of even working on it in parallel with the 60-vote bill.

And the nuclear option should not be ruled out. Instead, it's barely been mentioned.

Posted by: tyronen | December 15, 2009 2:30 PM | Report abuse

Funny to ask these questions in such a rhetorical tone. Presumably that goes hand in hand wit not actually looking into your comments to see the suggestions about what Obama might actually do.

Reconciliation is one thing. But arm twisting generally works on the electoral field. The more vulnerable Nelson is, the more difference it makes if Obama refuses to help him out -- or quietly works against him -- in the next election. Obama himself may be unpopular there, but he has a lot of power to help or hinder reelection, either directly or via the DNC, DSCC, and other fundraisers. Losing your next election is the biggest stick in politics, and one Bush wasn't afraid to use.

Hey, look at that! Answers to your supposedly unanswerable questions. And lets flip it around: why is Rahm able to pressure Reid, if Obama has no clout?

Posted by: Ulium | December 15, 2009 6:21 PM | Report abuse

The White House did have pressure over Lieberman. After the election, he wanted to stay in the caucus and keep his precious committee chair. That should not have come for free, but it did.

That's when they had pressure and could have cut a deal. But it was good Ole Joe, and nobody wanted to treat their friend like he had done anything wrong.

Posted by: pj_camp | December 15, 2009 7:07 PM | Report abuse

I think you're missing what's actually going on here. We're not mad at Rahm for this one moment in the process. This move is symbolic of how the White House has handled health care reform from day one. They are not fighters, or they never cared about the public option. Either way, this was the final straw.

I can't take it. I'm just not going to continue to vote for a party who only cares about corporations to keep a party who only cares about corporations out of power.

I'm done with the Dems.

A lot of us are.

Posted by: DAinLA | December 15, 2009 9:35 PM | Report abuse

Glenn Greenwald responded to Ezra Klein's "White House as helpless victim on healthcare" argument:

Posted by: kingsbridge77 | December 16, 2009 12:25 PM | Report abuse

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