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The mistake of trying?

PH20100127051591.jpgDana Milbank doesn't think the White House's problems is too much Rahm Emanuel. Rather, he thinks it's suffering from too little Rahm Emanuel:

Obama's greatest mistake was failing to listen to Emanuel on health care. Early on, Emanuel argued for a smaller bill with popular items, such as expanding health coverage for children and young adults, that could win some Republican support. He opposed the public option as a needless distraction.

The president disregarded that strategy and sided with Capitol Hill liberals who hoped to ram a larger, less popular bill through Congress with Democratic votes only. The result was, as the world now knows, disastrous.

Does the world in fact know that health-care reform has been disastrous? What if it passes in the next month or two? And then 30 million people get coverage over then 10 years, and tens of millions more have far better insurance than they otherwise would have had? Will it have been disastrous then? Would it have been disastrous if Scott Brown hadn't won in an unexpected special election in Massachusetts?

Like Dana, I'm an Emanuel apologist. The chief of staff's job is to run a tight White House, and Emanuel's job also seems to be to oversee legislative tactics, and the fact of the matter is that this White House has gotten health-care reform nearer to passage than any White House in history. Meanwhile, Barack Obama's approval rating remains at 51 percent. This is no catastrophe. And it's been very, very close to a historic success -- both for the administration and the American people.

Obama attempted a big health-care reform bill because, well, we have a big health-care problem in this country. What Dana is saying here is that the president made a mistake by trying to solve the problem -- or at least a lot of the problem -- rather than taking an easier route that would not have solved the problem. That seems like an odd definition of the word "mistake." Particularly given how close the bill came to passage, and how close the bill remains to passage.

What's odder about the analysis is that the legislation Obama chose to push was not ambitious in comparison to the problem (Clinton, Nixon, Truman, George H.W. Bush, and FDR all favored more radical plans, and the health-care system's ills are worse today than they were then) and was not nearly so liberal as Dana implies. Just ask any member of the House Progressive Caucus. This was a bill written by Democratic centrists that mirrored the bill proposed by Republican centrists in 1994. Neither the White House nor the Democrats in Congress wanted to pass this on their own. If they had, they wouldn't have given Max Baucus months to negotiate with the Gang of Six, and in that scenario, health-care reform would've passed long before Scott Brown was elected, and Obama would be raking in the plaudits.

If I were tallying up mistakes made during this process, it would be the naive hope that legislation like this had any chance at being bipartisan, not the pragmatic desire to do something serious about an urgent social ill. We've got to figure out an equilibrium in this country where the governing majority can act on problems, not give up and embrace a shrunken politics that dissuades them from trying. That way lies ruin.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais.

By Ezra Klein  |  February 22, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
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Ezra, I strongly support your contention. My issue with the Obama team & healthcare is that they have made two mistakes: 1. They have yet to make the strong connection with current costs and family budgets. This will take the President scheduling a national TV show where he brings two charts (could be one only). One shows the seemingly unstoppable annual incremental increase in insurance costs vs the GDP. A second chart showing the budget for the average homemaker (a woman)vs the annual increases in insurance costs. He then needs bring on some eloquent, smart average homemaker (woman) who can speak to how these costs are killing the family's future.
2. Obama outsourced the Healthcare bill to the two houses of Congress while he spoke in generalities to the public & spent time visiting Mexico, vacation and other mundane tasks. He should have been at both Senate & HOuse committee meetings spurring these guys on. This everlasting delay and his seemingly interminable requirement that the Republicans support the bill were naive and makes him look foolish. I urge the Dems to move to a 51 vote tomorrow.We cannot afford this broken system another day

Posted by: JLF0425 | February 21, 2010 10:00 PM | Report abuse

This is such typical Dana Milbank/Villager fare. The most important task (for Democrats) is to meet the Republicans half-way. Anything less is a failure. Republicans, of course, have no bi-partisanship expectations at all. In fact, the more Republicans punch the hippies, the happier Dana is.

I so agree with Ezra. The most important task is to solve the problem. Like so many other Americans, my main problem with Obama is not that he thinks too big or tries to much, but the very opposite.

The fact that Dana Milbank and Co. think Obama is too ambitious is a sign of how out of touch they really are.

Posted by: Lynnell | February 21, 2010 11:12 PM | Report abuse

Obama never sided with anyone on HCR.

He was AWOL the entire year.

Posted by: Lomillialor | February 21, 2010 11:19 PM | Report abuse

How much wasted ink has been used to read the entrails of the HCR process in Congress? Everything was dictated before it even began by the filibuster and the whims of nutbag Joe Lieberman, and maybe one or three other Blue Dog senate dems that were never going to let a PO be passed by regular order. Nor accept other more liberal provisions in a House Bill.

All the ruminations and angst the past 6 months, particularly by the Netroot progressives is just hyper partisan pearl clutching about who was to blame, and the answer was always to be found in what were liberal senate dems willing to use the Reconciliation process to achieve. Right now it looks like at least to make some adjustments to the original Senate bill to at least make it palatable to house liberals.

But any expansion of the federal government to provide health insurance for the general public was never really on the table even with 60 dem caucus members.

Posted by: GenStuck | February 22, 2010 12:07 AM | Report abuse

I think the commentary from Mr. Milbank you highlighted in your entry above indicates the tendency of journalists who cover politics to think about politics as a complex game of strategy while ignoring the fact that there are very real consequences for legislation-- or lack thereof. Thank you for putting the statements in their proper context. Furthermore, I'm pleased that you've corrected his mistaken assertion that Obama's plan was in line with Capitol Hill Liberals. There has been a steady push to label centrist Democrats as liberals. I'm not sure whether this represents any "vast right-wing conspiracy" or simply intellectual laziness, but it is important to be accurate in the labeling (particularly since "liberal" seems to have been turned into a pejorative).

Posted by: ntedrow | February 22, 2010 12:29 AM | Report abuse

Stop apologizing for the guy.

His job is to deliver.
He hasn't delivered.

It's as simple as that.

Posted by: adamiani | February 22, 2010 1:25 AM | Report abuse

@Ezra: “Like Dana, I'm an Emanuel apologist.”

Machiavellian Rahm Emanuel’s statement of not letting “a serious crisis go to waste” offered President-elect Obama the temptation of going over to the Power of the *DARK SIDE* [geez circa 1933, while we’re at it let’s burn down the Reichstad] -- or as George Lucas wrote in Star Wars III, "This is how liberty dies -- to thunderous applause."

When Obama pushed through his stimulus bill without what Thomas Mann & Norm Orstein call “regular order,” Obama went over to the DARK SIDE, and at that point ceased to be what HBS Professor Bill George calls an “authentic leader” and instead validated Reverand Wright’s characterization of him being “just another politician.”

Ezra, at the risk of making this being your defining moment, DO THE ENDS JUSTIFY THE MEANS?

And can President Obama's tough luck be explained by bad karma?

"To thine own self be true."
-- William Shakespeare

Posted by: msa_intp | February 22, 2010 3:57 AM | Report abuse

The "mistake" is treating Dana Milbank as a serious observer or opinion-maker re: current events.

Posted by: jmharrison75 | February 22, 2010 6:07 AM | Report abuse

What a difference a year makes.

Last March, Democrats were strutting around their new palace blathering lavish dreams about their thousand-year Reich.

Now Democrat columnists are fighting amongst themselves in the embers, sifting through the ashes of what might have been ....

Posted by: gitarre | February 22, 2010 6:19 AM | Report abuse

Rahm Emanuel has the reputation of being very good at cultivating the press (or leaking, as his detractors would put it.) It has stood him in good stead at moments like this. It's been interesting to see his defense through his press cronies. Are you aware that other reporters are giving out that he steadily and strongly opposed civilian trials for terrorist detainees? Surely you don't go along with his opposition to that. But that's what his other journalist contacts are for.

Posted by: truck1 | February 22, 2010 6:35 AM | Report abuse

Dana Milbank gets a gold-plated health insurance policy for being a third-rate Maureen Dowd. What does he care about the 30 million uninsured?

Posted by: eleander | February 22, 2010 7:30 AM | Report abuse

"Meanwhile, Obama attempted a big health-care reform bill because, well, we have a big health-care problem in this country."

You're right Ezra, we do have a big problem. The other problem is that this bill does very little to address that true problem of cost and instead shifts the burden from the uninsured who can't afford it (because they're unemployed, underemployed or uninsurable) to the taxpayer in the form of subsidies that will continue to make the doctors, pharma and to a smaller extent due to even increased regulations insurers while all the while the taxpayer takes on another entitlement burden on top of the ones we already can't afford. If you're going to remake 17+% of the economy you could have done so with taking all the factions even a little bit to task but instead all you're doing is masking one problem and making it worse. But hey we've got some nice pet projects in there so that makes it alright. Just disgusting.

Posted by: visionbrkr | February 22, 2010 7:38 AM | Report abuse

Milbank is a miserable access journalist and defending him is yet another example of you slipping down into the same festering abyss.

Emanuel has been wrong about everything since the early 90s. He has no morals, no brains and no long view.

Posted by: akmakm | February 22, 2010 8:06 AM | Report abuse

A picture is worth a thousand Ryan debunks the latest Democrat' Ponzi Scheme designed to launch their not-so-covert agenda to federalize the lives of every American.....

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | February 22, 2010 9:38 AM | Report abuse

You're letting Emanuel off the hook far too easily. Even after the White House resigned itself to the fact that this would be a Democratic bill, their approach for selling the bill was seriously flawed, and I do think you can lay a lot of that on Rahm Emanuel.

Emanuel is the definition of an establishment politician, and as such, he only knows so many tricks. So rather than making the moral argument for an urgently needed health care bill directly to the public, he treated HCR like the ordinary piece of legislation that it is not, directing the sloppy congressional deal-making that has become so toxic to debate. "Just get it done," he told Harry Reid, and so he did.

The public now hasn't even the vaguest idea of what HCR will do for them, but they know all about the infamous pork swaps. And that's because the process was shepherded by a legislative bulldog who isn't trained to care what the American people think.

Posted by: jwellington1 | February 22, 2010 9:40 AM | Report abuse

I neither know nor care what Emanuel's opinions are about HCR; we didn't elect him as Chief of Staff.

What I do know is that President Obama whiffed on the issue, by first turning it over to Congress to develop, and second, by not explaining the resulting bills clearly to the American people. He could have touted the parts he supported, while noting that other provisions were not part of his policy. But he didn't.

This is not to say that he didn't face a myriad of other big problems (that many seem to overlook) during that first year. that occupied his time. Nonetheless, if HCR was a major priority, the President should have used some of his capital (which he had at the time) to help build public support for it, without bashing the Republicans for their intransigence (leave that for the partisan campaigns later this year and beyond).

It seems that he left that up to Congress as a co-equal branch of government, and that was naive on his part. Philosophically, he seemed to think that Congress would act as "grown-ups"; what an overestimation of this partisan band of "what do I have to do to get reelected."

Posted by: bulldog6 | February 22, 2010 9:55 AM | Report abuse

The GOP totally screwed up the country over eight Bush years (huge debt, the Iraq War, Katrina, economic collapse) and because the Dems haven’t fixed it all in one year, the Republicans blame the Dems for all of the problems that arose under their watch. Furthermore, Republicans do their very best to impede any Democratic fixes. So the Republicans scream, "Look at the state of the country!" while conveniently omitting it's their own fault and then scream, "Look how the Dems can't get things done!" at the same time Republicans filibuster every fix Democrats propose. The GOP is repellently putting getting elected over helping the country.

Posted by: zvelf | February 22, 2010 9:56 AM | Report abuse

Ezra, if you don't stop posts like this, you're going to totally run out of people to sit with in the WaPo lunchroom.

Posted by: JEinATL | February 22, 2010 10:06 AM | Report abuse

--"What if it passes in the next month or two? And then 30 million people get coverage over then 10 years, and tens of millions more have far better insurance than they otherwise would have had?"--

What if? What if 300 million people "get", not only worse health care, but a worse standard of living as they attempt to shoulder the tombstone of your collectivist fantasies?

Posted by: msoja | February 22, 2010 10:40 AM | Report abuse

in treating Dana Milbank as a serious and honest person, you are making the same mistake Obama did with Mitch McConnell or John the Boehner.

Posted by: flounder2 | February 22, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse

Dana Milbank is a joke without a punchline, and his bent-knee acolade for Rahm is just what it is: stenography for hire (as a bonus to his Kaplan stipend).

Read Lawrence Lessig, (good description, poor prescription):

How to Get Our Democracy Back

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | February 22, 2010 11:12 AM | Report abuse

Outsourcing to Congress. I find that amusing. Since Congress is, you know... the legislative branch of our government, it seems odd that letting them fulfill their constitutional obligations should be considered "outsourcing."

The President did exactly what he's supposed to. I think this whole HCR process has illustrated what we've all known for a while now, and that is that Congress is broken, especially the Senate. When the President stepped back to let them do their job, they couldn't. I suppose it might be considered a "mistake" for the President to expect them to be able to function without him holding their hands, but I don't believe so.

I despise any political commentary that refuses to acknowledge that we have more than one government branch, and that Congress is supposed to be the primary one. Article 1, kids! I don't see any "mistake" that the WH made that isn't a matter of backseat driving, perspective, and/or rationalization. As Ezra says above, if HCR passes, all these so-called mistakes will be immediately re-framed as legislative brilliance. Political myopia is rife in pundit land. Mr. Milbank is their poster child.

Posted by: roquelaure_79 | February 22, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

"What Dana is saying here is that the president made a mistake by trying to solve the problem -- or at least a lot of the problem -- rather than taking an easier route that would not have solved the problem." No, Dana is dealing with the reality that you continue to refuse to deal with - that the bill is not going to pass any more. And that if it would pass, it is pathetically different from what anyone wanted.

Posted by: MikeR4 | February 22, 2010 4:42 PM | Report abuse

Hm, I don't share your view that Rahm's doing such a good job, although he sure might be. None of us really know what's going on in there. But if he's responsible for legislative process stuff then I would say that cutting down Christie Romer's stimulus figure was a pretty freakin' big screw up. Also, are you really prepared to argue that Congressional relations has been handled well on health-care? Didn't Al Franken just scream at Axelrod for the lack of direction that is sinking the process? The fact that they've gotten it this far probably has a whole lot more to do with the huge majority the Dems have for the next few months, not Rahm.

One little curiosity I've had for a while: The reported attitude of Rahm towards the public option and public health insurance in general seems awwwwfully similar to those of Max Baucus. This is total conjecture, but I wonder if Rahm had anything to do with the Gang of Six? Is it possible that Baucus actually did that in the face of opposition from the White House? or was there tacit approval for it?

Posted by: phillycomment | February 22, 2010 5:41 PM | Report abuse

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