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Someone should tell House liberals that President Obama doesn't actually support the excise tax

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The Oscar for Most Baffling Editorial went to my colleagues across the hall this weekend, for this effort on the excise tax. The point of the editorial was to lament that the excise tax kicks into gear in 2018 rather than 2014. Fair enough: I'd like to see it start sooner, too. But the decision to blame President Obama for that state of affairs is not only inexplicable, but actively harmful to the editorial's cause.

The editorial identifies "Mr. Obama's unwillingness to fight for the tax" as the reason the excise tax will start a couple of years later than originally intended. This is just dead wrong. There have been a number of policies that the White House has been unwilling to really fight for. The public option, for instance. Medicare drug reimportation. But the excise tax stands almost alone as an unpopular, politically dangerous policy that has only survived this far into the process because the White House adamantly refuses to stop fighting for it.

By all rights, the excise tax should have died already. It's unpopular. Really unpopular. Back in June, a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that only 33 percent of voters thought the idea "acceptable." More than 60 percent, however, were comfortable with a tax on the rich. A January CNN poll found the numbers virtually unchanged.

This was not lost on politicians who actually have to run for reelection this year. Scott Brown ran against it in Massachusetts. House Democrats have been vocal in their opposition to the tax, and they became even louder after Brown's victory made their vote more important and their numbers less certain. “The excise tax has no support, very little support, in our caucus," warned Nancy Pelosi. Republicans, meanwhile, have spent their time mauling the policy, even as many of them support it in principle. And yet, the White House has simply refused to drop the excise tax from the bill. It survives because the Obama administration simply refuses to let it die. They've had to make some compromises along the way, of course, but all in all, no single policy in the bill has been as much a profile in courage as the excise tax.

Sunday's editorial, however, made no mention of any of that. Not the polls, not Brown, not the Republicans, not the White House's surprising success at keeping the excise tax in the bill despite the House's objections. Nothing. That's not bad simply because it gives an inaccurate impression of the impediments facing the tax or the story so far. It's bad because it weakens the incentives for politicians -- not just this White House, but future White Houses -- to do the hard work on cost control.

After all, if the reward for defending an unpopular-but-important policy is that your political opponents get to attack you while editorial boards hammer the compromises you have to make to keep the proposal alive, then why try in the first place? The likely impact of the editorial page's inability to tell the people trying to pass the excise tax apart from the people trying to kill the excise tax is that savvy political consultants will have a stronger argument to make when they advise their clients to follow the polls and tax the rich rather than support unpopular policies to control costs.

For more, see Harold Pollack.

By Ezra Klein  |  March 8, 2010; 9:01 AM ET
Categories:  Health Reform  
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Comments

A pithy, courageous post, Ezra, thanks.

Posted by: scarlota | March 8, 2010 9:32 AM | Report abuse

Well, Ezra is discovering the obvious fact that engaged bloggers know more about what is going on that the highly paid reporters and editors. But to be fair, the WaPo leaders do know more about the DC social scene.

Posted by: Hopeful9 | March 8, 2010 9:49 AM | Report abuse

Well, one could always write to the Ombudsman -- oh, wait. According to the Opinions Page (as of today, March 8th):

Ombudsman on holiday, returning March 1

Maybe they mean March 1 2011.

Not that it makes any difference.

Posted by: IndyInNH | March 8, 2010 9:54 AM | Report abuse

Isn't the deeper issue here the McCain thing- that it was a debate point between them? In any case, forget the tax on expensive plans, I am already paying taxes on the full amount I spend on insurance, and I would love the rest of the country to join me.

Tax deductions cause too many unintended consequences.

Posted by: staticvars | March 8, 2010 10:02 AM | Report abuse

"After all, if the reward for defending an unpopular-but-important policy is that your political opponents get to attack you while editorial boards hammer the compromises you have to make to keep the proposal alive, then why try in the first place?"

Because they believe it's the right thing to be doing for the country. Shocking, I know :)

Posted by: SierraTangoWhiskey | March 8, 2010 10:12 AM | Report abuse

Ezra,

You're almost waking up. The last paragraph just needs one more dot to connect. And that dot is this: The established powers were going to attack Obama and you for any change that tried to make life better for most Americans and diminish the domination by private insurance companies. That is why Obama should have opened the negotiation with "medicare for all" and let the insurance companies and Fred Hiatt come up with their Byzantine compromises.

If I was a Democrat in the House or Senate, I'd say we will not support reconciliation unless there is an amendment for the public option and immediate implementation of the plan's most pro-consumer features. The excise tax can wait...and wait.

And no, I am not stupid enough to fall for Obama's promise of fixing things "later." That is up there with Clinton's promise to unions about fixing the NAFTA later with "strong side agreements."

Posted by: mitchellfreedman | March 8, 2010 10:27 AM | Report abuse

Exactly what is the definition of the plans that will be hit with the excise tax? Was the decision made based on price alone? If so, millions could be hit with this tax as the cost of individual and small biz plans increase.

Posted by: valkayec | March 8, 2010 10:31 AM | Report abuse

I find the title of the article - "Someone should tell House liberals that President Obama doesn't actually support the excise tax" - confusing. Didn't the Post just do that (albeit incorrectly)? Why should they be told that? If they were told, who would benefit? Or, is the title merely sarcastic?

It was just not connected enough to the body of the post. Is it just me, or was the link and implication obvious to everyone else?

Posted by: t_seltzer | March 8, 2010 10:47 AM | Report abuse

In fairness, Ezra, you're comparing apples and oranges when you're comparing the inclusion of the public option and drug reimportation to the excise tax. The inclusion or absence of the public option and drug importation is not necessary for the health care reform bill to function properly. You do, however, need to pay for your proposals if you don't want the country to go broke. Which is why fighting for the excise tax over the public option and drug reimportation makes sense.

That said, I agree with you that your employer's editorial was a bit overbearing.

Posted by: moronjim | March 8, 2010 11:06 AM | Report abuse

Ezra,

good to see you (if only in a small snippet) agree that the excise tax is a GOOD thing.


And as to the poll I'm sorry but that was completely IDIOTIC. They may as well have asked if they wanted to pay for healthcare reform by selling the blood of puppies and kittens or repirations from evil dictators of the 20th century.

Most polls are really dumb. This one is very much so.

Posted by: visionbrkr | March 8, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

Ezra you want WaPo Editorial board to do the 'praise job' for White House. No, that is not their responsibility.

What is the fact? Fact is White House diluted the excise tax. Is good? No. Then what is wrong for WaPo Editorial to point out that.

Now if you are saying 'political expediency' can allow Obama Administration only this far and too bad that savvy WaPo Editorial board is not recognizing that, and in fact such a failure to recognize political expediency is hurting larger political battle, that is a different thing.

Since when Presidency which promised 'change on people's support' started to need crutches of Editorial Board endorsements? Is it your sense of over estimation of WaPo Editorial influence or a desperate need to see White House to win this political battle? What is trumping your rational judgment in this case?

Posted by: umesh409 | March 8, 2010 12:03 PM | Report abuse

Ezra's analysis omits the fact that Obama initially delayed the onset of the tax only for favored labor allies and, then, when criticized for this sweetheart deal, decided to extend it to everyone rather than abandon it. The president keeps the excise tax in the bill so that he can claim that it will reduce the deficit in the outyears. But, is it plausible that a future Congress will allow this tax to go into effect when successive congresses have stopped Medicare fee cuts already enacted into law fron taking effect? I think not.

Posted by: tbass1 | March 8, 2010 12:20 PM | Report abuse

This is what worried me when you joined the Post. The Post's editorial board is not engaged in the process of telling the truth and educating its readership. Rather, like most establishment media, it sees its role as advocating for policies preferred by wealthy elites. This means that they will oppose most provisions to improve health care for most Americans. I hope you are able to remain a factual and independent voice, and I understand that liberal voices need to be heard outside of the liberal community (your excellent work in the American Prospect was probably only read by people who already agreed with you), but I worry that over time you will lose that independence.

Posted by: beckya57 | March 8, 2010 2:47 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, you so naive....or maybe you're joking.

Obama not principled in the traditional sense, just the standard narcissistic politician sense .

Ezra, your "principled" Obama has refused to back down from his corrupt PhRMA deal, the result will be a MAJOR cost driver of HC, Obama could have reduced drug costs for everyone instead--even refused to allow re-importation of drugs.

--- so reducing costs is not the source of Obama's principles on excise tax----

Obama's principle is avoidance of policies that require any SUBSTANTIAL taxing of his fat cat campaign contributors ---that he needs for 2012,
----thus raw power remains Obama's principal goal guiding his principles for legislation.

Posted by: johnowl | March 8, 2010 7:46 PM | Report abuse

Delaying the implementation of this tax increase to 2018 is far beyond the pale. President Obama is not even man enough to own this tax in his own administration. I don't believe there has ever been such a weak form of leadership when the policy enactment so far follows the end of a presidency.

Posted by: lancediverson | March 9, 2010 2:11 PM | Report abuse

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