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Obama and Bright Lines in the Sand

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Is President Obama just a politician, or is he a leader? That is the core question he faces in the debate over healthcare reform, and -- so far -- he seems to be more concerned with being a successful politician than being a successful leader. Because Obama appears to have one major goal in this entire undertaking -- in his words, "a bright line in the sand" -- which he will not back down from. That goal appears to be to sign a piece of legislation this year. What the legislation actually contains is of lesser importance than being able to say: "I got healthcare reform passed."

Of course, this may be too harsh an assessment in what is essentially the middle innings of this game. Appearances can be deceiving. And Obama's timing is more geared towards the "closing" moments of legislative battles than in the long slog which precedes these battles. To be fair, also (this being Washington), a lot of the real arm twisting is happening now, outside the public's view. And we simply have no way of knowing what is being defended, or (conversely) traded away, in discussions between the Obama administration and Congress.

Part of these backroom dealings crept into the light this week, when Obama's chief of staff Rahm Emanuel made the pages of the Wall Street Journal for reportedly giving up on "the public option." Or possibly just resisting it. Or refusing to fight for it. Various reports of the meeting he had with some congressional Democrats are contradictory, and there is no transcript (since it wasn't a public meeting), so a lot of the interpretation of Emanuel's remarks should be seen as just that -- interpretation.

Reportedly, Rahm favors what is known as the "trigger" approach to introducing the public option. This can be summed up as: we'll give the health insurers a few more years, and if things get a lot worse than they already are, then we'll threaten them with a public option to compete with (at some unspecified future date).

Rahm Emanuel, for those of you unaware, is seen as the prime architect of Obama's will on Capitol Hill. He's the nuts-and-bolts guy who is supposed to keep everyone in line and get legislation actually passed (instead of just talked about). The dynamic between Emanuel and Obama has so far been largely unexamined by the White House press corps, but will in the future fill the pages of the inevitable books about the Obama administration.

But Rahm (and by extension, Obama) has so far shown that he is much more willing to fight with his own party than Republicans. Obama, trying to clean up the mess that the Rahm story made, again refused to give a strong defense of the public option himself. By doing so, he just dug the hole deeper. What exactly does Obama stand for in this debate, we are left wondering. When will he draw a line in the sand (bright, or otherwise)?

The healthcare debate began by Obama proclaiming he was willing to listen to everyone's ideas (even Republicans') -- unless you advocated a single-payer plan, in which case you should save your breath. Everyone had a "seat at the table" -- except those wackos who thought the way the rest of the Western world provided healthcare might be worth a look. Obama, in essence, started the entire battle by compromising his position and drawing a "bright line in the sand" over which he would not step -- excluding single-payer from discussion.

This led to the first "born of compromise" idea, the "public option."

But Obama has not been a very strong voice for this option at all. He half-heartedly speaks of it, but refuses to say whether not having it would be a deal-breaker for him. This reluctant support has led opponents of the idea to attempt all sorts of ways of undermining it, or removing it altogether. Which leads to further compromising of the initial public-option compromise. At some point, health care reform itself will be so compromised that whatever emerges from the horse trading is going to be all but worthless. This is known as "politics as usual" in Washington, and not "change we can believe in," it should be pointed out.

Even strong Obama supporters are starting to worry that the whole health care reform push may largely be a political exercise for the president. Obama seems to have over-learned the lessons of the failed Clinton health care fiasco. The problem back then (so the conventional wisdom goes), is that Hillary Clinton wrote the legislation herself, and didn't allow Congress to participate. So they eviscerated her idea when it was proposed, and it failed. By giving Congress the lead role this time around (the corollary to this conventional wisdom), they will "buy into" the idea, and support it.

But this leaves Obama painted into a corner. He has squelched his own voice on any of the details of the plan, because he refuses to put himself in a position where the media will run giant "Obama's Healthcare Idea Fails" headlines. If he supports one idea, or one plan, and starts issuing veto threats if he doesn't get it, then he runs the risk of the entire exercise collapsing. However, if he stays above the fray of individual details, and merely offers tepid support for "goals" instead, then at the end of the day, he can claim anything that comes out of Congress as success. Whether it actually reforms health care or not. Something will appear on his desk to sign, and Teddy Kennedy will be at his side when he signs it. Politically, Obama seems to have decided this is good enough.

Again, perhaps I'm being too hard on the Obama administration here. And perhaps the outcome won't be as bad as some doomsayers are predicting. As I said, this is still the middle innings of this game. There will be three minor battles and three major battles before any bill does get to Obama's desk. So perhaps it is wise at this point to save such weapons as a veto threat for later in the game.

The first three battles will happen in the House committees, and in the two Senate committees. This is when an actual bill is put together and voted on, so it can move to the floor. These battles are the ones which are being fought right now, and the deadline for their completion is "before Congress takes a full month off in August." But after these three skirmishes come the real fights. Because then the House as a whole will vote on a bill. And the Senate as a whole will do likewise.

Then comes the mother of all legislative battles -- the conference committee. House and Senate people will sit down to "reconcile" their two different bills, and the final bill will be hammered out. This is the part of the sausage-making story where ideas which have already been voted down magically spring back into life, and ideas which have already been approved quietly die an ignoble death. And make no mistake about it -- this is where the true fight will happen.

So we still have a long way to go, in other words. Obama may just be keeping his powder dry until the critical finagling begins in earnest.

One good thing to see is that the Progressives are now pushing back hard against the Blue Dogs. In this Democrat-on-Democrat action, House Democrats are actually not caving in to the so-called "moderate" Democrats (in reality, "corporate-owned" would be a better description, but let's not call names, shall we?) And Senate Democrats, led so far by Charles Schumer and Bernie Sanders (who is technically not even a Democrat), are also standing up to "centrist" Democrats (and the odd Republican who is actually participating in the debate instead of sitting in a corner screaming "no no no no!"). Some bright lines in the sand are being drawn in the Democratic caucus, in other words. Progressives are actually (at least for now) holding firm and saying "we have a lot of members who will absolutely not vote for any bill that doesn't include a strong public option." If they can hold their members together, this could actually defeat the Blue Dogs, who (it must be said) are usually a lot better at this shoulder-to-shoulder solidarity stuff.

Over in the Senate, Schumer (and, to a lesser extent, Chris Dodd) is the biggest and brightest line-drawer so far, stating unequivocally that any plan with a trigger is unacceptable. Bernie Sanders is trying to shame as many Democrats as he can into pledging not to support Republican filibuster/cloture attempts at killing health care legislation. Again, such a display of solidarity could actually work -- if everyone stands firm. Even (gasp!) Harry Reid is telling Max Baucus and his committee that it is now time to give up all hope of getting any Republican votes, and start actually producing something that Democrats can vote for. If Harry Reid is showing some backbone, then maybe these voting blocs are a lot stronger than anyone in the mainstream media has noticed.

The strongest leverage in this arm-twisting game is the looming midterm elections. Because there's another lesson from the Clinton era that Democrats don't like to talk about much, but just as surely realize (and quake in nightmarish terror over). When much is promised, and little or nothing is delivered, then you can get voted out by the public -- who will be tired of excuses and fed up.

How much the 1994 "Republican Revolution" was due to the failure of Hillarycare is a subject up for debate, but who wants to gamble with such dynamite? If Democrats fail to achieve health care reform before the end of this year, they are going to be very very nervous out on the campaign trail next year, because they'll be facing disillusionment and disgust from the voters ("How many Democrats in Congress does it take to actually get something done?!?" is the question they really fear). And, likewise, if they pass some window-dressing legislation that does nothing to fix the underlying structural problems the health care industry has, then the voter disillusionment may not be as deep or as widespread, but it will still be there.

But Rahm Emanuel's efforts to help the process along not by drawing lines in the sand, but by dragging his foot to erase other lines Democrats have drawn ("There's no line there, see? No line at all!") breeds its own type of disillusionment. Because if Obama appears to have only one goal -- a signing ceremony -- instead of the goal of actually fixing health care, then that disillusionment is going to be directed at Barack Obama, not at congressional Democrats. If Obama, out of a sense of political safety, refuses to champion any part of the health care plan at all, in favor of getting "something" passed, then he is not going to be seen as leading the health care fight.

He's going to wind up looking like just another politician, in other words. Not a leader. That is the risk of not "drawing bright lines in the sand," Mr. President.

[Grammatical Note: When did "lines in the sand" become "bright"? What exactly does brightness have to do with a line in the sand? Shouldn't the modifier be something more... um, sandy... than that? How about "sharp" lines in the sand, or "deep" lines in the sand? I'm just saying....]

Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com