07/31/2009 07:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Friday Talking Points [88] -- Healthcare Reform Contest (Place Your Bets!)

I thought about titling today's column "Sausage Making, Interrupted" in (dis-)honor of the House of Representatives scarpering off on a five-week vacation without finishing their work on healthcare reform (the Senate, it should be noted, is reportedly planning on doing exactly the same thing next week, to their equal shame). Then I thought I'd riff on the old doctor joke: "The operation was a success... the patient died on the table, though." But when I sat down to write, I decided I was sick of the entire process. Meaning there was only one sane and healthy thing to do.

Hold a contest!

We haven't run a really good contest in a while, so I thought we'd open up the betting on what the outcome of the healthcare reform push will likely be, rather than write yet another column of seething frustration at the lack of progress from our belovéd Congresscritters.

But since contests are such fun, we're going to stick it at the end, where the talking points normally can be found. To be healthy FTP column consumers, we've got to eat our vegetables before we get to dessert, as it were. Ahem.

So, very quickly, I'd like to make one quick point here and then get the awards out of the way so we can all move on to the important business of placing our bets.

A few days ago, in North Carolina, President Obama gave a town hall meeting/pep rally on healthcare reform. Here are part of his full remarks [emphasis has been added by me]:

First of all, nobody is talking about some government takeover of health care. I'm tired of hearing that. I have been as clear as I can be. Under the reform I've proposed, if you like your doctor, you keep your doctor. If you like your health care plan, you keep your health care plan. These folks need to stop scaring everybody. Nobody is talking about you forcing -- to have to change your plans.

But if you're one of the 46 [million] Americans who don't have coverage today, or you've got that coverage where you got a $10,000 deductible, so it's basically house insurance, it's not health insurance -- you pay the premiums so you won't lose your house if you get hit by a bus, heaven forbid -- then you'll finally be able to get quality, affordable coverage.

But what a lot of chatter out there hasn't focused on is the fact that if you've got health insurance, then the reform we're proposing will also help you because it will provide you more stability and more security. Because the truth is we have a system today that works well for the insurance industry, but it doesn't always work well for you. So what we need, and what we will have when we pass these reforms, are health insurance consumer protections to make sure that those who have insurance are treated fairly and insurance companies are held accountable.

Let me be specific. We will stop insurance companies from denying you coverage because of your medical history. I've told this story before -- I will never forget watching my own mother, as she fought cancer in her final days, worrying about whether her insurer would claim her illness was a preexisting condition so they could wiggle out of paying for her coverage. How many of you have worried about the same thing? A lot of people have gone through this. Many of you have been denied insurance or heard of someone who was denied insurance because they got -- had a preexisting condition. That will no longer be allowed with reform. We won't allow that. We won't allow that.

With reform, insurance companies will have to abide by a yearly cap on how much you can be charged for your out-of-pocket expenses. No one in America should go broke because of an illness.

We will require insurance companies to cover routine checkups and preventive care, like mammograms and colonoscopies -- eye and foot exams for diabetics, so we can avoid chronic illnesses that cost not only lives, but money.

No longer will insurance companies be allowed to drop or water down coverage for someone who's become seriously ill. That's not right, it's not fair. We will stop insurance companies from placing arbitrary caps on the coverage you can receive in a given year or in a lifetime.

So my point is, whether or not you have health insurance right now, the reforms we seek will bring stability and security that you don't have today -- reforms that will become more urgent and more urgent with each passing year.

OK, I pasted a lot of that in here, because it's worth it, and I want to broadly comment on it in a bit. But first, let's look at that bold paragraph.

I vaguely remember then-candidate Obama telling this story on the campaign trail last year. You know what is pathetic about that last sentence? Everything, really, but in particular: "vaguely remember." Because I have personally been so close to the healthcare reform legislative debate for -- oh, I don't know, months and months now -- that I'm not only seeing the forest as well as the trees, but also the bark on those trees, and even the tiny tiny bugs living on the bark, as well. And, until I caught it (it certainly wasn't featured in the soundbites the mainstream media ran from Obama's appearance in North Carolina) a few days ago, I had completely forgotten about this story.

This is pathetic. Maybe this is why I've been so frustrated that I've been writing about beer and marijuana all week, I don't know. Ahem. Where was I? Oh, right -- pathetic!

You want to know why? Because this is exactly the main argument that both Barack Obama and all other Democrats fighting for reform should have been shouting from the rooftops since Day One of the healthcare reform debate. Why, why, why oh why can't Democrats ever do this "emotion thing" right (or, more accurately, "with any sort of sense of timing")?

In fact, I am getting so supremely annoyed at this lack, that I must break for a Bokononist interlude:

Tiger got to hunt

Bird got to fly

Man got to sit and wonder, "Why, why, why?"

OK, that's a little better. A little Vonnegut always puts things in perspective for me. I apologize for the interruption.

Now, don't get me wrong. I am not knocking Obama's speech in North Carolina. In fact, I think it would be an absolutely brilliant move for Obama to forego his monthly primetime press conference next month, and instead just grab an hour of network television time and repeat this speech word for word to the American public. It's a really good speech, and gets Obama back to the plain-spoken-ness he so regularly and effortlessly achieved as a candidate out on the hustings. It puts our entire situation in such easy-to-understand language that it would do him wonders -- both in the polls and in the fight for his agenda right now. Especially on healthcare, as shown by the section I excerpted.

Because, for both Barack Obama and almost all the Democrats in Congress fighting hard against the corporate-sponsored "do-nothing-ism" of the Blue Dogs, what has largely been missing in the debate is the human element. I have already said this over and over in many ways, but here's this week's version:

Why wasn't the poignant and heart-wrenching story of Obama's mother the starting point in this debate? Why didn't Obama share his personal and very human feelings of watching his mom go through this? Why didn't he explain why he is absolutely and morally committed to reforming healthcare because this episode in his life deeply moved him to do so?

This is called "telling a story." It is what politicians (and journalists, for that matter) are supposed to do. The better you do this -- in either profession -- the more effective your message is. And, depressingly, at times it seems like you have to undergo an operation to absolutely remove this ability in order to join the Democratic Party, or something.

Where is the emotion in this entire healthcare debate? Where is the emotion!?! Look at some of the other phrases Obama has (just recently, sad to say) finally started to use:

"No one in America should go broke because of illness."

"That's not right and it's not fair."

You know what? If Democrats, led by President Obama himself, had started with this sort of thing, instead of pulling it out in desperation late in the game, we might now be arguing about whether losing the guarantee of single-payer was a deal-breaker for the Progressives, with Republicans and Blue Dogs desperately pushing for the much-less-radical "public plan" as being much more friendly to the status quo and the business community at large.

Just picture that for a moment, if you will. That is where we could be in this debate.

So, instead of talking points this week, I want every Democrat who is worthy of the label to please read Obama's recent speech, and in each and every media appearance during their monstrously- and obscenely-long summer vacation, to remember, for the sake of actually achieving healthcare reform:

Tell a story.

A human story.

There are tens of millions of personal stories which speak for themselves as to why healthcare reform is the right thing to do.



Most Impressive Democrat of the Week

The Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week is awarded, in general, to the people buying up ad time to make the case for healthcare reform during the August congressional break. In specific, we'll give the actual award to MoveOn, which just leaked the script of the ad they plan to run against any Democrat voting against healthcare reform today in the House committee, but this is just one part of a much larger campaign.

Because politicians, no matter what color their dog is, are susceptible to this sort of thing -- pointing out to their constituents what they've been up to in Congress. And this time around (unlike the "Harry and Louise" days of 1994), the playing field is going to be a lot more level. Back then, the airwaves were flooded with ads from one side only -- the side that wanted to kill reform. This time, the pro-reform side is also going to unleash an ad blitz as well, meaning that people will see two sides of the story.

This is to be commended. No matter what happens in the healthcare reform debate, at least this time around there are groups collecting money and cutting ads for reform, to counter the anti-reform deep pockets. And these groups so far have shown a lot of political savvy in targeting specific members of Congress in order to hold them accountable for their actions, rather than just unleashing a scattershot ad approach.

So MoveOn, and all the other groups putting their money where their beliefs are to try and get healthcare reform passed, are the winners of this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award. Keep up the good work, folks! Keep their feet to the fire!


Most Disappointing Democrat of the Week

This week's Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week goes out to Senator Max Baucus, and all his Blue Dog buddies in both the Senate and the House. The Blue Dogs, led by Baucus, are ostensibly chasing a "bipartisan" pipe dream because (they say) it's the best way to achieve healthcare reform.

This is patent nonsense. The Republicans, with the possible exception of the ladies from Maine, are not interested in achieving anything. Quite the opposite, in fact. Their party has been following a crass political calculus: Healthcare failure equals Obama failure. This is their true goal, and everything else is just window dressing. Unfortunately, Baucus is mesmerized by this window dressing, and can't see through the clear pane of glass in front of his face to the naked obstructionism which cavorts beyond it.

Baucus and the rest of them have been paid a lot of money by the healthcare industry to block any meaningful legislation. But they know that to do so outright would cause a revolt from the Democratic Party base, and cause nothing but scorn from independent voters. So they're trying to run out the clock instead. If they just appear to be working hard towards the goal, they think they can say next year on the campaign trail "well, gosh, we really tried hard," and still get re-elected.

They need to be reminded of what happened to the Democratic majorities in Congress in 1994. Democrats were thrown out in record numbers because they couldn't get anything done. So why do Baucus and his ilk think being the prime instrument of not getting anything done is a good idea now? I have no clue. Neither, apparently, do they.

Oh, wait, here's a clue!

"Give up on the false idol of bipartisanship -- Republicans are never going to vote for anything you produce."

Maybe I should send it on to them. Or maybe we all should.

For being fellow travelers with the Party Of No, and for continuing to be the biggest roadblock towards getting something done, Senator Max Baucus and all the other Democrats mumbling the mantra of "delay, delay, delay" or "can't we just have a little more time?" have more than earned this week's Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week.

If you can't lead, then at least get out of the way for those who are trying to.

[Contact Senator Max Baucus on his Senate contact page to let him know what you think of his actions.]


Friday Talking Points

Volume 88 (7/31/09)

Since we're topsy-turvy this week, with the talking points summarized into one heartfelt rant at the beginning, we have as a result freed up our final section for the contest. This is the part where we all throw down our fake, pretend cash and predict what the outcome of the healthcare reform efforts in Congress will be. I've provided seven scenarios, with odds, for your contemplation, but you can always feel free to call your own bet in the comments. The more outlandish the better, that's our motto!

Rules are the standard thing. For newcomers, what this means is that the only currency this column accepts for bets is quatloos. Even if you pick from the menu of choices presented below, you still have to call the date -- either when healthcare reform is actually signed by President Obama, or (in the case of failure), the last date progress was made by either house (since failure may come by the "run out the clock tactic," which would be hard to pin to a single date). So you not only have to call the outcome, but when it'll happen. Incomplete bets, as always, are free to be mocked for not following the instructions by the other bettors in the field. Ahem. And by the moderator, just because. Any ties will be decided by the Friday Talking Points staff, including (of course) the cat.

Prizes will be as awarded in whichever categories strike our fancy when awarding them, and will consist solely of (we asked our lawyers about this, don't worry): massive public bragging rights, since your login name will be congratulated quite publicly in a future FTP column -- which comes complete with the full approval of this column to use this resulting fame to try and pick up (depending on your individual preference) either hot chicks or hot dudes from the nearest meat market of your choice. Oh... and your quatloos, of course -- that goes without saying. But that's it... sorry folks, but we're not exactly the lottery here.

Anyway, here are the house's odds on our most popular seven outcomes of the healthcare battle in Congress. Examine them well, or take your own guess in the comments below.

Ya pays yer money, and ya takes yer chance! Step right up, one and all, and put your quatloos where your mouth is! Place your bets, ladeeeez and gents!



   Round One -- House passes, Senate rejects

First, some terminology. I went into this process in detail yesterday, but it can be easily summed up as: Round One -- each house passes a bill on its own; Round Two -- both houses pass the same bill; Round Three -- President Obama signs the bill. Got that? OK, here we go with the first of our options.

The two competing bills which emerge from the three House committees are wrestled into one bill, probably over the August break. When Congress resumes, the House passes the resulting bill. Zero Republicans vote for it. A few Democrats defect, but enough hang on to get the bill through.

Over in the Senate, however, the entire process collapses. Now, there are a few ways this could happen. Baucus' committee may just never get anything voted on. Or they could produce a bill, but then everything grinds to a halt in the resulting conference committee (to reconcile their bill with the bill Teddy Kennedy's committee already passed). Or they could even agree on a single bill, only to see it go down in defeat in a vote in the full Senate. If it even gets that far -- perhaps a filibuster succeeds and they won't even get a chance to vote on it.

But whatever the reason, the House passes a bill with lots of media fanfare, but the Senate remains hopelessly deadlocked and healthcare reform dies for the year. Since this option could mean running out the clock, you must pick the date when the House passes their bill. Closest to the actual date wins.

Odds: Frighteningly high. Let's say, even (one-to-one).



   Round One -- Senate passes, House rejects

This is the same as the previous one, except reversed. The Senate gets its act together, melds its two bills into one, and it reaches the floor and passes. The House, however, remains deadlocked.

Again, you should really call how far the bill makes it in the House if selecting this option -- multiple bills out of committee, conference committee approves, floor vote, or whatever. The date you have to name is when the Senate passes its bill.

Odds: bet one quatloo, win five more if you're right. The odds that this will happen are rather long, because it's much easier to get things through the House.



   Round One -- Senate passes, House passes, bill dies in conference committee

This is a real possibility that many people have not even faced yet. The House hammers out a bill, and passes it through a floor vote. Yay! The Senate struggles mightily but at the end of the day actually passes something. Double-Yay! A conference committee between the two houses is announced, but bickers so violently that no bill is ever agreed upon. Boo! Healthcare reform quietly dies for 2009.

Now, in this one, you should really call whether the Senate passes its bill through a regular vote (which is susceptible to a filibuster) or through "reconciliation" where the filibuster is not allowed. This parliamentary weapon has been readied for use this year, but Harry Reid has said he's not even going to consider using it unless the Senate gets to mid-October without managing to pass anything. So if you choose reconciliation, adjust your date accordingly. Since this could be another one of those "run out the clock" choices, pick the later date of the Senate vote or the House vote (no matter what the actual order, pick the date when the second house passes it).

Odds: Terrifyingly possible. Bet two quatloos, only win one more if you're right.



   Round Two -- House passes, Senate rejects

The House passes a bill, the Senate passes a bill, and the conference committee agrees on a single bill. This bill is then passed by the House, but fails in the Senate.

Again, you should call whether it fails due to a filibuster or under reconciliation rules. The date you should name is when the House passes the combined bill.

Odds: Bet three, win two more if you call it right.



   Round Two -- Senate passes, House rejects

Again, the reverse of the previous choice. The conference committee bill is passed by the Senate, but dies in the House (likely because it has been watered down so much it is no longer acceptable to the Progressives). This would be heart-breaking -- to get so close, but to fail in the end because the legislation has been subjected to too many compromises to be worth doing -- but is a very real possibility.

Pick the date when the Senate passes the combined bill.

Odds: Bet one, get three more in return if you win.



   Round Three -- Obama vetoes

OK, this one's a longshot, I have to admit. But it is a possibility, so I have to at least mention it.

The House and Senate pass individual bills. The conference committee gets a single bill out. The House and Senate both then approve the bill, and send it to Obama's desk. But because some poison pill amendment has been added along the way, Obama reluctantly has to veto it.

Pick the date Obama actually vetoes the bill.

Odds: Extremely long. Bet one, get twenty-five more if you win.



   Round Three -- Success! Obama signs!

This one is self-explanatory. Pick the date of the signing ceremony.

Odds: At this point, who really knows? Call your own odds for this one...

OK, those are the main options. Of course, there are all kinds of other ways it could happen (or not -- such as an invasion of Martians which cause Congress to adjourn early and head for undisclosed locations, just to toss one possibility out there). So peer into your crystal ball, pick a date, and slap your quatloos down in the comments!


[Program Note: Friday Talking Points will be taking a week off next Friday. But don't despair, because in place of our usual weekly FTP rantings will be a special column for your enjoyment and edification. Because next Friday will be President Obama's 199th day in office, and I think it's silly how the media practically has an orgasmic experience over the first 100 days, but then just stops counting after that milestone. So we'll be reviewing Obama's second 100 days in office next Friday. FTP will resume normal programming on August 14. We thank you for your understanding.]


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Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground