12/16/2009 09:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It Didn't Have To Be This Way

It didn't have to be this way. It really didn't.

The epic struggle for healthcare reform is entering its final days in Washington. And the Democrats (being Democrats) have managed to snatch political suicide from the jaws of legislative victory. But, I keep thinking, it didn't have to be this way. If we had had some real leadership from two key Democrats named Obama and Reid, we wouldn't be where we are now.

Democrats have now positioned themselves so that they will lose politically, no matter what happens in Congress in the next few weeks. Well, I should qualify that by saying there's a slim chance for a better outcome than the one that appears inevitable at this point, but that chance is rapidly disappearing as the calendar dwindles between now and the real deadline for a signing ceremony -- President Obama's State Of The Union address next month.

A quick review of where we are (and where the chips may soon fall) is in order here. The Senate is reportedly going to vote soon on a bill which, while adding some improvements to the healthcare picture, has at its core only one change likely to be immediately noticeable to many Americans: a mandate to buy health insurance from private companies. To balance this new duty to purchase health insurance, we have... um... not much left. Previous to this week, the argument could be made that the mandate was a tradeoff for such things as a public option, or (more recently) allowing people to buy into Medicare at age 55. With these two big pieces of the legislation bargained away, there is not much of a carrot left to balance the stick of mandating insurance for all. Making it harder to argue the case that the bill is "reform" in any meaningful way.

This has led to open revolt among the Left. Howard Dean is leading this charge, and he is not mincing any words. In an opinion piece in today's Washington Post, Dean writes:

If I were a senator, I would not vote for the current health-care bill. Any measure that expands private insurers' monopoly over health care and transfers millions of taxpayer dollars to private corporations is not real health-care reform. Real reform would insert competition into insurance markets, force insurers to cut unnecessary administrative expenses and spend health-care dollars caring for people. Real reform would significantly lower costs, improve the delivery of health care and give all Americans a meaningful choice of coverage. The current Senate bill accomplishes none of these.

Real health-care reform is supposed to eliminate discrimination based on preexisting conditions. But the legislation allows insurance companies to charge older Americans up to three times as much as younger Americans, pricing them out of coverage. The bill was supposed to give Americans choices about what kind of system they wanted to enroll in. Instead, it fines Americans if they do not sign up with an insurance company, which may take up to 30 percent of your premium dollars and spend it on CEO salaries -- in the range of $20 million a year -- and on return on equity for the company's shareholders. Few Americans will see any benefit until 2014, by which time premiums are likely to have doubled. In short, the winners in this bill are insurance companies; the American taxpayer is about to be fleeced with a bailout in a situation that dwarfs even what happened at AIG.

This is a big change, since as recently as last weekend, Dean was still a big supporter of the compromise bill -- before huge chunks of it were stripped out at the insistence of Joe Lieberman.

The Lefty blogosphere is divided, between those screaming "We have had enough -- kill the bill!" and those still defending it as a worthwhile and historic piece of legislation. But the problem is, no matter which side gets its way, Democrats are going to pay a political price.

Assume, for the sake of argument, that the bill is killed by Progressives who have had enough. Next year, Democrats will lose seats since they will (quite rightly) be painted by their opposition as not being competent enough to get things done, even with huge congressional majorities. The healthcare fight will go on throughout the election, but nothing much will get done in Congress for the entire year except re-fighting the same battles we've just been through, ad nauseam.

Or suppose that the bill now being talked about does pass the Senate, and remains largely unchanged in conference committee. Polling already (in polls which were taken before the most recent compromise was made to Joe Lieberman) shows that roughly one third of Democratic voters are so disgusted by how weak the bill has become that they say they are going to stay home next election day -- because they just can't stomach supporting such spinelessness in their party. Net result: Democrats lose seats.

Because America is a two-party system, when Democrats lose, Republicans win. Giving us, after the election, two years of a Congress that will fight Obama's agenda tooth and nail. Net result: nothing major gets done until 2012. Or even: Republicans start ramming through their agenda, and Obama, in a burst of bipartisanship, signs everything they send him.

I don't mean to be overly gloomy, but with the midterm elections next year and then two years of a possibly-more-Republican Congress, it doesn't look like Obama's going to have much of a record to run on in 2012.

Which he knows. And which is part of the problem. Obama is now nakedly stating what we've all suspected from the beginning -- that he simply does not care what is in the bill, he just wants to sign something that is titled "healthcare reform" to chalk up a perceived political victory. "Perceived" because while Obama refuses to risk "failing" on any one piece of his legislation, and thinks he will get the credit for the "victory" in the end; in reality he may get a personal "victory" only at the expense of the failure of all of the key components that were supposed to be a part of that victory. Here is Obama, after yet another meeting with Democratic senators:

"I told my former colleagues today... that we simply cannot allow differences over individual elements of this plan to prevent us from meeting our responsibility to solve a long-standing and urgent problem for the American people."

In other words: "Just pass something... anything... so I can sign it."

But it is not just outsiders who are publicly showing their annoyance at the White House right now. A Huffington Post article today has an extraordinary collection of such statements by congressional Democrats. Here's just one of them, from Representative Anthony Weiner:

"Snowe? Stupak? Lieberman? Who left these people in charge? It's time for the president to get his hands dirty. Some of us have compromised our compromised compromise. We need the president to stand up for the values our party shares. We must stop letting the tail wag the dog of this debate."

Howard Dean ends his article on a similar note:

In Washington, when major bills near final passage, an inside-the-Beltway mentality takes hold. Any bill becomes a victory. Clear thinking is thrown out the window for political calculus. In the heat of battle, decisions are being made that set an irreversible course for how future health reform is done. The result is legislation that has been crafted to get votes, not to reform health care.

I have worked for health-care reform all my political life. In my home state of Vermont we have accomplished universal health care for children under 18 and real insurance reform -- which not only bans discrimination against preexisting conditions but also prevents insurers from charging outrageous sums for policies as a way of keeping out high-risk people. I know health reform when I see it, and there isn't much left in the Senate bill. I reluctantly conclude that, as it stands, this bill would do more harm than good to the future of America.

But -- once again -- it didn't have to be this way. Because there has been an absolute vacuum of leadership on the push for healthcare reform, with the exception of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who managed to get a mostly-decent bill out of her chamber in a timely fashion. Two other leaders were required in this fight, and they have been noticeable in their absolute ineffectiveness. Or just plain absence. I speak, of course, of Harry Reid and Barack Obama.

There are two types of leadership both men could have shown -- public and private. In public, Obama has given one speech on healthcare reform, at the end of the summer. In it, he laid down only one firm marker -- that the bill pay for itself, and not break the budget. Everything else was left open to negotiation. Which led to the suspicions that Obama didn't really care what was in the bill, instead caring only that he got one to sign at some point.

Because the cost became the line in the sand, this built into the process many delays -- since nothing could get any support until after the Congressional Budget Office (C.B.O.) put numbers on any proposed piece of legislation. Which brings to mind a tangential question: where are the C.B.O. numbers for the compromise Harry Reid floated last week? These numbers were supposed to be out by now, but they would have been given privately to Reid. So are we to assume the numbers for the compromise were bad news? If they were great news (for instance, "allowing people 55-64 to buy in to Medicare will save $120 billion over ten years") then you would assume that Harry (and others) would be out there using them as a club to beat down resistance to the idea from the likes of Joe Lieberman (who was for this exact plan a mere three months ago... until liberals got enthusiastic about it, by Lieberman's own admission). Because these numbers haven't been announced, either (a.) the C.B.O. is taking longer than expected to generate them, or (b.) the numbers aren't good, which is why Reid jettisoned the idea after Lieberman came out against it.

In any case, getting back to the main story, the president has two ways to lead members of his own party. In private, he can cajole and threaten (loss of party money in re-election campaigns, for instance) recalcitrant members of Congress to get on board his agenda. But the rumors have been consistent all year long -- Obama's White House (and his supposed enforcer, Rahm Emanuel) only twist the arms of Progressives. "Moderate" or "centrist" Democrats (including all the "Blue Dogs" Emanuel himself was instrumental in getting elected) are, quite simply, never even asked to compromise. The net result of this, if true (these are, after all, private conversations which are mostly never spoken of, meaning rumors are our only source), is that Obama is fighting the base of his own party on some very crucial issues. And when that base sees, over and over again, that Obama simply does not have their back -- and indeed, that Obama is actually overtly hostile to their issues -- this leads to an overall disillusionment among the party's voters. Which is a big part of the reason Democrats are in trouble next year.

In public, presidents have one gigantic leadership tool available to them -- veto threats. President Obama, to the best of my knowledge, has never issued a veto threat in his eleven months in office. He has gone almost a fourth of his term without once stating: "If Congress passes a bill with X in it (or without X in it), then I will have no choice but to veto it." This is the main tool presidents have in exerting leverage over Congress. Imagine where we'd be if Obama has stood up in June and said: "Congress should not bother passing healthcare reform without a public option, because I will veto it and send it right back to them so they can get it right." Now, such a strong stance (I merely chose the public option as the most obvious issue, but he could have weighed in on any number of facets of the debate in this fashion) would have sent a clear message to Congress. As a result, we may not have made it as far as we have today. Healthcare reform might have failed miserably, as under Bill Clinton. But that is the risk you run. There is always a risk that if you try to push Congress too far, they will snub you as president.

Barack Obama chose not to take any such risk, showing once again that he has been more interested in the signing ceremony itself rather than what is contained in any bill he signs. He chose, to put it bluntly, to play it safe. And even now, he continues to play it safe. Rahm Emanuel reportedly (this was immediately denied by the White House, I should mention) went to Harry Reid last weekend and told him to "give Lieberman anything he wants."

One might ask if Obama would sign a healthcare reform bill if it, say, made birth control illegal. Or made it a crime for any doctor to treat any illegal immigrant. At this point, it is hard to know what would be a "bridge too far" for Obama, because he is so reluctant to even be seen as drawing any kind of line in the sand.

But Obama's lack of leadership on the issue was matched by Harry Reid. Now, in all fairness, Harry has done a monumental job of getting legislation this far. Others may have failed to even accomplish what Harry has, so far. We could still be talking about what Max Baucus' committee wanted, for instance, under a weaker leader than Harry. This speaks to, perhaps, Harry doing some arm-twisting of his own in private. Reid's conversations with his fellow Democrats are even more low-profile than Obama's, and rarely leak out to the public. So we don't know exactly what Harry's been up to behind closed doors in this whole debate, to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But Harry has also failed to use the tools available to him to show leadership in public. In public, Harry occasionally says something which would lead you to believe he's going to play political hardball, but then he never backs these statements up by actually doing so. In fact, his normal modus operandi is to begin negotiations by throwing away his best bargaining position. He has shown this inclination time and time again over the past year.

The biggest lever Harry could have used (but hasn't) is the concept of "budget reconciliation." This option was passed earlier this year (when Congress was passing the "budget blueprint") so that -- if necessary -- the Senate could use rules which limit debate and ban the filibuster, to pass healthcare reform with only a 50-vote majority (plus, one assumes, Joe Biden's vote). But, since then, Harry has barely even given the concept lip service. He did threaten to start using reconciliation by mid-October, but then this threat was never carried out, and indeed, never spoken of again.

Here's how Harry could have effectively used this leverage. From the point that Max Baucus' committee finally passed their version of the bill, Harry could have come out and announced that every single version of the bill that the Senate would consider would be split into two parts before sending it to the C.B.O. to be scored. Harry would send a normal bill to them, and he would also send a package of two bills -- with exactly the same language as the normal bill -- that would be ready to introduce on the Senate floor under reconciliation rules (two bills would be necessary, because only the part that dealt with budgetary matters would qualify for this treatment, leaving the less-contentious issues in a separate bill that could assumably easily get 60 votes). Each and every time he went to the C.B.O. with a bill, he would deliver it in two versions. The C.B.O. scores for both versions would be exactly the same, of course, since they would have exactly the same language in them.

But -- and here's where the concept of leverage comes in -- Harry wouldn't say which bill he'd be introducing to the Senate floor. Meaning that at any time -- in the blink of an eye -- Harry could pull the normal version of the bill, and introduce in its place the reconciliation version, which would have no 60-vote hurdle to overcome.

This would have sent the strongest possible message to Senate Democrats that no single senator could hold up the bill. It would require eleven Democrats to object in order for Harry to even utter the word "compromise." This would have sidelined Lieberman, Landrieu, Nelson, and all the rest of the nay-sayers -- from the very beginning. Reid could have presented it thusly: "You can either vote with the caucus to defeat a filibuster attempt, or we will pass it without your vote and you can go home and explain to your constituents why you weren't there when the party needed you. Oh, and good luck fundraising for your election, because we won't be there to help you out."

Just the threat of reconciliation may have been enough to get the votes Harry needed. But he tossed this leverage away, by (a.) not even mentioning the possibility for months, and (b.) not getting a reconciliation version scored by the C.B.O. -- meaning now it may be too late to even attempt this.

We'll never know. The void caused by both Barack Obama and Harry Reid in the leadership department was quickly filled instead by "centrist" Democrats who realized that every senator can be called "the 60th vote" -- if they just make enough noise about their pet issue.

So while Joe Lieberman is getting a lot of scorn (and worse) these days from the Left, it's really not entirely his fault. If Obama had been drawing some lines in the sand all along by threatening vetoes, and if Harry Reid had been holding reconciliation over his caucus' members as a giant goad (or "club," take your choice), then we simply would not be in the position we find ourselves now. We may have been in a worse position, or we may have been in a better position -- that's the risk you take when you exhibit leadership.

Whether you think it would have led to success or failure (however you define these terms), the fact remains: it didn't have to be this way.


Chris Weigant blogs at:

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