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The problem with the Gang of Six

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Matthew Yglesias misunderstands my argument on the mistake that was the Gang of Six. In the context of the health-care process we actually had -- where conservative Democrats believed that Republicans would sign onto the bill, and members of both parties thought it important to go slowly -- Max Baucus's Gang of Six probably strengthened Democratic unity by convincing the caucus that the maximum possible effort had been made to bring Republicans onto the bill. That's the argument of the first post he quotes.

The argument of the second post he quotes is that Democrats began the process based on mistaken premises. First, Republicans were never going to come onto this bill, just like they abandoned the Clinton reforms in 1994, and just like Democrats refused to compromise with George W. Bush on Social Security in 2005. Electoral incentives point against cooperation. Second, their main priority should have been speed. Letting the legislation rot in the belly of Congress for a year was a recipe for disaster. It gave the opposition a long time to attack, and the media a long time to cover the conflict, and it created space for the unknown unknowns -- like Scott Brown's election, the unexpectedly sharp worsening of the economy, and the tea parties -- to darken the political context.

Max Baucus's Gang of Six made some sense in the context of the Democratic approach to the health-care reform process, even if I was harshly critical of it at the time. But the mistake was the Democratic approach to the health-care reform process. Put slightly differently, the problem wasn't the Gang of Six but the misguided beliefs on bipartisanship and process that made the Gang of Six possible.

Photo credit: By Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

By Ezra Klein  |  February 4, 2010; 9:34 AM ET
Categories:  Congress  
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Next: The conservative compromise that is the Senate health-care bill

Comments

Stick a fork in HCR - it's done:

http://www.pollster.com/polls/us/healthplan.php

Those diverging lines tell you everything you need to know about the Dems' dawdling.

Posted by: tbass1 | February 4, 2010 10:00 AM | Report abuse

"First, Republicans were never going to come onto this bill, just like they abandoned the Clinton reforms in 1994, and just like Democrats refused to compromise with George W. Bush on Social Security in 2005."

Those are equivalent? Time to re-read Paperwight on Reason v. Reasonableness http://fairshot.typepad.com/fairshot/2005/04/reason_v_reason.html

The Dems refusal to compromise probably saved Social Security. Their willingness to compromise on the Iraq War, the USA PATRIOT Act, torture, FISA, No Child Left Behind and the Bush tax cuts speaks for itself.

Posted by: eRobin1 | February 4, 2010 10:15 AM | Report abuse

How much 'history digging' is needed for this sucker - any HCR - to move forward?

Posted by: umesh409 | February 4, 2010 10:19 AM | Report abuse

"Letting the legislation rot in the belly of Congress for a year was a recipe for disaster."

It sounds like you're talking about the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Apparently Democrats are incapable of learning from mistakes.

Posted by: uh_huhh | February 4, 2010 10:34 AM | Report abuse

It is easy to understand who Democrats would regard Social Security as the cornerstone of the modern safety net and be 100% resistant against dismantling it.

I think it is hard for Democrats, even in the Senate, to understand that Republicans would consider opposition to HCR what they believed to be cornerstone of our way of life. But that is ultimately what they thought-- they really did believe that our lack of universal health care policy infrastructure was part and parcel of the American way of life and that a program for universal health coverage was a threat to freedom, the purity of our precious bodily fluids, etc. Which is why the bill needs to be passed: the sooner it does, the sooner Republicans will be accustomed to working within that legal framework of universal coverage.

Posted by: constans | February 4, 2010 10:34 AM | Report abuse

"The Dems refusal to compromise probably saved Social Security."

And the teabaggers think the Republicans are saving healthcare from an intractable government bureaucracy, death panels, etc. And I would argue that there was at least as much misinformation regarding Social Security reform as there is about HCR.

An unwillingness to see any kind of legitimate parallel between very similar circumstances speaks to Ezra's point. Bipartisanship is impossible on such issues. Because very few people are going to see eye to eye, and there is no room to compromise. How do you compromise on something you see as being ultimately horribly destructive to the country? Be it HCR or Social Security Reform?

If the Democrats had caved on Social Security Reform, how would that have played with the base? If the Republicans cave on Healthcare reform, it will play with their base the same way.

What's more, Republicans took their time with Social Security Reform. They crafted relatively dense legislation that perhaps wasn't as sweeping as it sounded, but made it sound very big, indeed. They tried to get Democrats on board. The president went around the country stumping for it, promoting it, and the poll numbers went down, not up. Democrats that were lukewarm and tentative at the outset--and sent such messages to the administration--became actively hostile, especially in public, as the legislation moved forward and then stalled. In many ways, they watered down the legislation in hopes of pre-emptively making it less of a reform, in order to win Democrats over, and it didn't work.

In the end, it was attacked viciously, it went from polling positively to polling very negatively, and it failed. The biggest difference between Social Security Reform and HCR is that the Democrats might grow a pair and try again. The Republicans certainly didn't do that.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 4, 2010 10:42 AM | Report abuse

*****Put slightly differently, the problem wasn't the Gang of Six, but the misguided beliefs on bipartisanship and process that made the Gang of Six possible.*****

Negotiating with Republicans and conducting the people's business in a brisk fashion needn't have been mutually exclusive propositions.

Baucus's approach should have been: "I'm willing to work with you guys, and value your input and would like your votes, but our schedule requires me to report out a bill in early August, so this isn't going to be open-ended as we ARE going to stick to a deadline."

In other words, since when does comity and cooperation mean a COMPLETE surrender to the other side's whims?

Why couldn't Baucus have negotiated with these people, but just eschewed doing so AD INFINITUM?

The venality and stupidity of some of the people running the show for Democrats is simply mind-boggling.

Posted by: Jasper999 | February 4, 2010 10:44 AM | Report abuse

"It is easy to understand who Democrats would regard Social Security as the cornerstone of the modern safety net and be 100% resistant against dismantling it."

Social Security Reform wasn't going to be dismantled. Not even close. Just changed, a fairly timidly, and not for people currently collection Social Security. Yet Democrats clearly saw that--at least based on their rhetoric--as an attempt to destroy Social Security and kick senior citizens out into the streets.

Myself, I see a lot of parallels in the Republican's tales of HCR putting people in jail and creating death panels and the divorced-from-reality rhetoric Democrats mustered in their politically adept defeat of Social Security Reform. But, naturally, your mileage may vary.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 4, 2010 10:49 AM | Report abuse

@ Kevin_Willis: And I would argue that there was at least as much misinformation regarding Social Security reform as there is about HCR.

They wanted to privatize Social Security. I don't see how the discussion moves past that point. It would have been a disaster. We're lucky it was avoided. The HCR bill works to maintain the private aspects of the US Healthcare system. It bends over backward to be sure profits are maintained for the insurance and provider industries even when that doesn't make sense. And the GOP had a lot of input into the final product. I don't see how the two are comparable.

Posted by: eRobin1 | February 4, 2010 10:51 AM | Report abuse

The reason for the long delay in HCR was Dems kept trying to find a way to pass the public option. Look how long it took the House to pass a bill. After Senate Finance passed its bill, Reid and Schumer WASTED two months trying to find a way to still pass a public option; otherwise the Senate would have passed the bill in early November. the votes were never there for a PO (as many folks said from the beginning) and Dem leadership failure to recognize this is what has placed HCR in dire trouble

Posted by: craig18 | February 4, 2010 10:52 AM | Report abuse

Really, the problem was that the policy that emerged that was the only way to get a sensible health care reform policy with universality in it included the individual mandate.

The individual mandate was specifically defeated in the Democratic party primary for the presidency by Barack Obama himself. To bring this policy idea back, there needed to be a serious debate on where this health care policy was going. Really, this should have happened in the campaign between McCain and Obama but it didn't, so it had to happen in the first year of the Obama administration.

You can't just throw something so significant on the American people without debate. The only way they will trust it is if there is bipartisan buy-in. We didn't get any Republican buy-in because the Democrats thought they could roll the Republicans with taxes on the wealth (on top of repealing the Bush tax cuts), a public health insurance option, and expansion of a terrible Medicaid program.

The Democrats misplayed this debate. But, with all that said, there exists a mediocre bill waiting for House Democrats approval. They should approve that bill. And I will just hope that it doesn't get worse with a so-called Senate "fix" through budget reconciliation.

Posted by: lancediverson | February 4, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse

*Social Security Reform wasn't going to be dismantled. Not even close. Just changed, a fairly timidly,*

Turning SS into a 401(k) plan which would then be invested in annuities at retirement, and borrowing billions of money to do it is the definition of the dismantling of the system. I can easily understand how some democrats might regard this as the "cornerstone of the safety net"-- something that everyone benefits from. I do admit that I was surprised at how Republicans felt that our lack of universal coverage was somehow part and parcel of the American system and how any proposals for universal coverage were regarded as an Bolshevik attack on the American way. I understand people having an attachment to the guarantees and universality of social security. I don't understand people believing that guarantees of access to health coverage is somehow anti-American. But my experience with Republicans is mostly the "we love our tax cuts and hate Clinton/Obama/Gore" variety, not the "we must protect the purity of essence of our precious bodily fluids" kind, so I don't have a view into what's going on in their heads when the claim that HCR is the end of the American way of life.

Posted by: constans | February 4, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse

Imagine if the Republicans had had their way and privatized Social Security? Wall Street would have had all of our futures to gamble with, instead of only the major part of our futures. And we know who would and would have not suffered the losses when their speculative edifices tumbled. The mind reels. We shouldn't forget this, nor let it escape fellow voters.

Posted by: douglasblee | February 4, 2010 5:31 PM | Report abuse

It's probably too late to go into any detail, but I should note none of the descriptions of Bush's Social Security Reform offered here are remotely accurate. It was hardly wholesale privatization. There were no death panels. Maybe it was poorly crafted legislation, or maybe not. But it was hardly privatization, anymore than current HCR is nationalization. Current HCR is just a mess.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 4, 2010 9:27 PM | Report abuse

Kevin_Willis, The main argument from the
Bushies was that SS recipients would get more money out of investing in stocks than taking the guaranteed pay outs from the Feds. Go back and look at what bush said about it at the time.

"In the United States in the late 1990s, privatization found advocates who complained that U.S. workers, paying compulsory payroll taxes into Social Security, were missing out on the high rates of return of the U.S. stock market"-wikipedia

It was analogous to changing part of SS from a defined benefit pension to a defined contribution pension. I don't know anyone who volunteered to make this change at their jobs. It was instituted by management to save them money in the out years of pensions. It was bad for workers and it would have been worse for SS recipients, especially where the stock market is now. Also administrative costs would have eaten up some of the benefit payouts. Great for stock brokers, lousy for SS recipients.

Posted by: srw3 | February 5, 2010 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Kevin_willis is correct in that "It was hardly wholesale privatization." at least not at first. The plan as envisioned only diverting 25% of payroll taxes to the private accounts. However, that 25% would mean a lot to seniors if when they were near retirement the stock market took a dive and that money was essentially lost. Most seniors depend of SS for a majority of their income. I doubt that many could afford a 25% reduction in payments.

Posted by: srw3 | February 5, 2010 12:45 PM | Report abuse

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