Wednesday 9 September 2009

game day: will Obama endorse public option, then accept trigger?

Obama will give another mea culpa for leaving things to unclear for too long, but probably pivot back to “you can’t be bashing my plan because I haven’t revealed it yet”.

Obama will, in fact, sell the public option tonight. He will shoot down the incessant GOP lies, particularly the ones aimed at frightening seniors (and possibly taking the GOP to task, and also the media for not exposing the lies). He will explain among other things that the public option won’t give the government an unfair advantage over private insurers. He will set up his own “trigger”, saying he prefers the public option but is willing to hear other solutions, knowing that he waited for months for other solutions to come from Congress, and got nothing practical out of it – thus leading us right back to the public option.

Obama will also get people excited about this: even though he is selling a centrist approach to a complex issue, which normally wouldn’t excite people, nevertheless there really is something to fear here, and it’s not the nonsense the Republicans have been selling – it’s allowing the insurers to keep the status quo and continue to rob us and cheat us.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, momentum is growing for the “trigger” plan submitted by Republican Olympia Snowe. Senate Blue Dog Ben Nelson endorsed it, so other conservative Democrats could be sold on it, and then brag to their constituents that they fought the good fight against those evil liberals and delayed spending the big bucks until later (a good selling point with deficit hawks like Bayh and Conrad). Pelosi is willing to accept it if obstruction from insurers (i.e. failing to cut costs or expand coverage) leads quickly to a robust public option, and Majority Whip Clyburn said the trigger idea could actually save the public option, so they should be able to find enough liberal and conservative House Democrats to back it.

The trick here is that Baucus has been trying to bridge the wrong gap. Instead of bridging the gap between Democrats and Republicans (who were never going to vote for reform anyway), he should have been bridging the gap between the two wings of his own party, so they could unite behind a plan. And that may be what he is doing: in addition to meeting with the “bipartisan” Gang Of Six today, Baucus also has a separate meeting with only the Democratic members of his committee, many of whom are angry about being left out of the “Gang” talks. Since the Republicans in the Gang are either rejecting all proposals or (in Snowe’s case) out pedalling their own separate proposals, Baucus could sit down with his fellow Democrats, pull all the bipartisan wishywashyness out of his own plan, and put the beef back in. Baucus wants to finally be relevant in all this – or at least get as much attention for his plan as Snowe is getting – but he needs to do it, um, right now.

Baucus would need to beef up his plan anyway, for a number of reasons. First, the White House isn’t happy with him. Robert Gibbs hinted at the fate of the Baucus plan when he remarked offhand that the lobbyists and special interests got a copy of it even before the White House did, which is, well, whatever the opposite of a ringing endorsement is. Second, the Baucus coop proposal, while containing some good points, is rather a Frankenstein monster. And third, while everyone from Pelosi to Snowe is out there endorsing the trigger plan, do you see anybody out there flacking the Baucus coop plan except Baucus? Even his own Gang Of Six is cool to it.

So: the trigger option will get more support than a straight public option, losing a few die-hard liberals but gaining a bunch of Blue Dogs, and the Baucus plan will get less support than either the trigger option or the public option. So there’s your leaderboard as of today. The fact that Baucus’ plan is only at Number Three will increase his desperation today.

Perhaps Obama, who has been trying to buck up Baucus in recent weeks, will let Baucus save face and “adopt” the trigger plan later.

As September rolls on, watch for Obama to work behind closed doors, selling the same product to different audiences. To liberals he will point out that the trigger option is not a rejection of the public option, but rather a straight path to the public option. To Blue Dogs he will emphasize that they are giving the insurers time to prove their bona fides, and saving money in the process – capitalism, cost-cutting, all the stuff they like.

Meanwhile, Senate Democratic leaders are starting to lean on the Blue Dogs: in the past we let it slide when you didn’t back up the party on filibusters and other procedural votes, but we’re not handing out “get out of jail free” cards anymore. Screw with Obama on this, and a lot of chairmen are going to be chairless. I’m talking to you too, Lieberman!

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