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Is Obama Dumping the Public Option?

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 4:31 PM EDT

"It had better be wrong."

That was the response of Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) to Wednesday's Politico story  that the Obama White House, as it retools its strategy for health care reform, has no intention of fighting for the inclusion of a public option that would offer government-run health insurance to companies and people who can't obtain affordable coverage elsewhere. And Jacob Hacker, a health policy expert who can be called the godfather of the public option, says, "The White House...has to be told in no uncertain terms that dropping the public plan is stupid and premature."

The Politico piece did not quote by name President Barack Obama or his senior advisers saying they were dumping the public option from their must-include list. So it's possible this was a trial balloon that could burst. But even though Obama had already declined to vow he would go to the mat for a public option, the story did rile up progressives on and off Capitol Hill. 

"Without a public option, this bill will do a lot of nice things but only by throwing a couple hundred billion dollars at insurance companies," says Nadler, adding that a public option is necessary to hold down the cost of health insurance. "What is the point of passing a bill that mandates people to buy insurance that is going to be unaffordable?" he says.

Nadler insists that a bill lacking a public option cannot pass the Democratic-controlled House, noting that in July, he and fifty-six other House Dems sent a letter [PDF] he had drafted to House Speaker Pelosi declaring they would not vote for health reform legislation without a public option. (At the moment, it looks as if there's practically no Republican support for any health care reform measure that might be crafted by House Democrats.)

Though a public option can likely make it through the House without much assistance from Obama, Nadler notes points out that no such bill could succeed in the Senate absent pressure from Obama. If Obama doesn't make an effort, Nadler says, "I believe it will cause a very big split" in the Democratic Party.

Off Capitol Hill, progressives pressing for health care reform with a public option immediately began calling contacts in the White House to register objections. "We'll make our feelings known privately first," one says. "Then we'll come up with a public strategy." In an email to me, Hacker maintained that retreating on the public option will buy the White House nothing:

Haven't Democrats learned to stop preemptively negotiating with themselves? Let Democrats work the issue out in the House and Senate caucuses (that's where any deal will be made, because there will be virtually no Republican support for any element of the President's proposals). Meanwhile the President should push for the public plan.

Hacker noted that Obama had already

offered the Right an olive branch when he suggested he might prefer coops to the public plan, and the Right basically immolated the olive branch....I don't know what he gets by backing off. The public is supportive. The non-Maine Republicans will vote nay no matter what. And the wavering Democrats will probably go along, or at least not filibuster legislation over it -- if the President sticks to his guns.

"From a progressive point of view," Nadler says, "we've already compromised five or six times." He cites liberal Democrats' willingness to give up on a single-payer approach and to agree to several restrictions on a public insurance plan. But he acknowledges that voting against a bill without a public option will be a "test" for progressive Democrats: "A lot of them have said they will vote against such a bill, but will they?"

What of the argument that the House Dems should not permit the perfect to be the enemy of the good? Isn't half a loaf better than none? "I am convinced," Nadler remarks, "that you can't take a loaf without the public option because that's not sustainable, with the costs going up. If we did this, what will we accomplish in the end?"

On Wednesday afternoon, the news broke that Obama will deliver a major address on health care to a joint session of Congress on September 9. Now that it's crunch time, that speech could signal what Obama will actually be fighting for in the weeks ahead. If the president bails on the public option, Nadler warns, Democrats should prepare for a family feud that sure won't be pretty.

 

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

 

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Can You Hear Me Now? Verizon Faces Calls for Boycott Over Anti-Climate Rally

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 4:22 PM EDT

Cell phone carrier Verizon Wireless has prompted an online uproar and calls for a boycott over its sponsorship of the "Friends of America Rally," a Labor Day gathering in Logan, West Virginia organized by mountaintop-removal coal mining company Massey Energy that appears intended to rile up the troops against climate change legislation.

Under similar political pressure, Verizon has already dumped its ads on Glenn Beck's Fox News show as of last week, citing Beck's "controversial track record." Another Fox blowhard, Sean Hannity, is set to appear at the Logan rally along with global warming skeptic Lord Christopher Monckton and the inimitable Ted Nugent. The sponsorships seem out of character for Verizon, which, on its website, touts efforts to address "the entire global emissions problem" through measures like fuels cells, solar panels, and energy efficient technology.

Verizon spokesperson Laura Merritt told me the sponsorship of the rally was "a local decision that was intended to support the immediate community." She added that more than 100 companies had signed on to the event (though most are small businesses or part of the mining industry). "I insure you that this is not a statement of our policy on any public issue."

Merritt declined to say what kind of events Verizon would not sponsor. When I asked if there are people in West Virginia who oppose mountaintop removal mining and support a climate bill, she demurred. "All I can tell you is that this decision was based on support of that immediate, small community there," she said. "Beyond that, I really don't know."

It's perhaps unfair to be too hard on Verizon when 3 million businesses belong to the US Chamber of Commerce, a brutal foe of cap and trade. Still, the company comes off as duplicitous and amoral when it panders to local audiences in opposition to its stated values. Fortunately, many consumers know that there are phone companies that actually put the planet ahead of profits. That's what I'd call a true Friend of America.

UPDATE: Courtesty of Think Progress, here's Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship inviting people to attend the rally, where they'll learn about how "environmental extremists and corporate America are both trying to destroy your jobs."

Optimistic About Healthcare

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 3:11 PM EDT

So why do I remain fairly optimistic that a decent healthcare reform bill will pass?  Sometimes I wonder myself.  But here are three reasons.  First, Jon Chait, who thinks getting bipartisan support for a bill was always a chimera:

The ultimate endgame entailed getting all the Democrats to pull together and pass something.

Of course, Democrats didn’t want to do this. They wanted bipartisan support, mainly for political cover. Moderate Democrats won’t do this until it becomes clear that the Republican Party is dead set against reform, completely in hoc to its right-wing base, and not negotiating seriously....In that sense, August moved the ball pretty far down the field.

Second, Carl Hulse of the New York Times, reports that conservative Democrats haven't been too fazed by the August freak show:

Even after the tough town-hall-style meetings, unrelenting Republican assaults and a steady stream of questions from anxious voters, interviews with more than a dozen Blue Dogs and their top aides indicate that many of the lawmakers still believe approval of some form of health care plan is achievable and far preferable to not acting at all.

....The political temperature of the Blue Dogs — and their ideological counterparts in the Senate — after the five-week recess is crucial. As representatives of some of the nation’s most conservative territory represented by Democrats, they potentially have the most to lose if a Democratic bill spurs a backlash....One lawmaker in the group, Representative David Scott of Georgia, said his determination to enact a health care overhaul had been increased over the recess because of what he called the spread of misinformation and other unfair tactics engaged in by the opposition.

And third, there's the fact that conventional wisdom places Dems in a very, very deep hole right now:

Some of the most prominent and respected handicappers can now envision an election in which Democrats suffer double-digit losses in the House — not enough to provide the 40 seats necessary to return the GOP to power but enough to put them within striking distance.

Top political analyst Charlie Cook, in a special August 20 update to subscribers, wrote that “the situation this summer has slipped completely out of control for President Obama and congressional Democrats.”

Now, put all this together and look at it from the Democrats' perspective.  Republicans have been given every chance and have obviously decided to obstruct rather then work on a bipartisan compromise.  So the Blue Dogs and centrist Dems feel like they're covered on that angle.  What's more, the townhalls have shown them what they're up against: if they don't pass a bill — if they cave in to the loons and demonstrate that their convictions were weak all along — they're probably doomed next year.  Their only hope is to pass a bill and look like winners who get things done.

When you're up against a wall, you do what you have to do.  Politically, Dems have to succeed, and at this point they've all had their noses rubbed in the fact that the only way to succeed is to stick together.  What's more, Barack Obama has a pretty good knack for coming in after everyone else has talked themselves out and cutting through the haze to remind people of what's fundamentally at stake.  If he can do that again, and if he has the entire Democratic caucus supporting him, they can win this battle.

Nearly every Democrat now has a stake in seeing healthcare reform pass.  The devil, of course, is in the word "nearly," but at this point even Ben Nelson probably doesn't want to be the guy to sink a deal if he's literally the 60th vote to get something done.  It's usually possible to pass a bill when everyone's incentives are aligned, and right now they're about as aligned as they can be.  That's why, on most days, I remain optimistic.

UPDATE: A commenter at James Joyner's site describes Obama's style this way: “He operates like a community organizer: let people have their say, let them wear themselves out, then step in and define the consensus.”  At his best, I think that gets it about right.

And when is Obama going to do this?  Next Wednesday in an address to a joint session of Congress.  Nice symbolism there.  I hope it works.

Chamber Backs off "Scopes" Comment

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 1:48 PM EDT

A few days after I made fun of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for saying it wants a hearing on climate change that would be "the Scopes monkey trial of the 21st Century," the group has backed off the comment. Chamber vice president Bill Kovacs blogs on the National Journal website:

My "Scopes monkey" analogy was inappropriate and detracted from my ability to effectively convey the Chamber's position on this important issue.

What is the Chamber's position on this important issue? According to Kovacs, the Chamber is not one of the business lobby's "Climate 'deniers,'" but is simply against an "endangerment finding" by the EPA--a conclusion that greenhouse gasses are a threat and should therefore be regulated as pollutants. As I stressed yesterday, the endangerment finding serves as a powerful political club for the Obama administration in pushing the cap and trade bill that the Chamber opposes.  "[O]ne can be against an endangerment finding and still supportive of strong, effective action to reduce carbon emissions," Kovacs writes. "Indeed, the Chamber's platform of technology, efficiency, and a global approach would actually do more to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions than a finding by EPA ever could."

Assuming that's true--and there's no real evidence it is--when did "technology, efficiency, and a global approach" and an endangerment finding become mutually exclusive?

I continue to be appalled that the Chamber, which represents 3 million businesses, some of whom disagree with its stance on cap and trade, is run by people as short-sighted and blatantly dishonest as Kovacs. Even as he distanced himself from the "Scopes" comment and the "climate denier" label, he rolled out a list of "uncertainties" about human-generated climate change, ending in a mention of "the saga of Alan Carlin, the EPA whistleblower whose internal report criticizing the data behind the endangerment finding was ignored." As has been thoroughly addressed here and elsewhere, Carlin is an economist, not a climate scientist, and his report was read and discounted--"ignored," if you will--because it was based on false assumptions and flawed data. That the nation's largest business lobby is really that stupid doesn't bode well for the future of American commerce.

 

Quote of the Day

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 1:37 PM EDT

From David Axelrod, commenting on how his boss plans to knock some heads and get engaged in the healthcare debate any day now:

It’s time to synthesize and harmonize these strands and get this done.

Well, that's either cunningly brilliant or terminally vapid.  I'm not sure which.  I guess it depends on whether Obama ends up passing a healthcare bill or not.  If he doesn't, his decision to keep his distance from the fight until the very end will be judged as harshly as Clinton's decision to write a 1000-page bill and dump it on Congress.  If he does, that same decision will be judged a brilliant coup.  Personally, I think it has a pretty good chance to be the latter.  We'll see.   More here.

Simple Reform

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 1:00 PM EDT

Andrew Samwick thinks Democrats have done a lousy job of selling healthcare reform, and it's hard to argue with that.  But then he goes on to ask for evidence that any of the bills currently moving through Congress are better than a simple reform consisting only of:

1. Community rating
2. Guaranteed issue
3. Ex post risk adjustment
4. An individual mandate, with Medicaid for a fee as the backup option

I've seen a bunch of criticisms along these same lines, and I don't really get them. Granted, the bills now on the table have more to them than just these points, but not a lot more.  The core of all of them is insurance industry reform (#1-3) combined with subsidies for low-income families (#4).  With the exception of the much-debated public option, the additional stuff lies in the details (the subsidies aren't all Medicaid, children get treated differently than adults) or in modest expansions of Samwick's list (out-of-pocket caps, tax credits for small businesses).  The fact is that current reform efforts are already fairly modest.

Unless, of course, I'm misunderstanding Samwick and he means "Medicaid for a fee" literally.  That is, no subsidies and no attempt to expand coverage to the currently uninsured at all.  If that's the case, then the answer to his question is "Because they expand decent health coverage to millions of poor people."  If it's not, then I'm not quite sure what the problem is.  Putting the public option aside for the moment, are the additional details in the House and Senate bills really so abominable that he thinks they should torpedo the whole project?  Why?

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Adaptation to Allow More Katrinas?

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 12:54 PM EDT

The debate over climate change mitigation versus adaptation rose to a boil this week as the World Climate Conference kicked off in Geneva, vowing to bring adaptation front and center. Speaking about this new focus, WMO Secretary General Michel Jarraud stressed the importance of addressing the impacts of climate change that are already inevitable, like the rise of sea waters and the spread of diseases like malaria.

Following the release of California's Climate Adaptation Strategy last month, Tony Brunello of the California National Resources Agency told me that "it used to be that you'd get slapped in the face for talking about adaptation...it was seen as doing nothing and taking away from mitigation efforts." But, he said, anti-adaptation ferver has mostly died down as it has become clearer that mitigating climate change without bracing for impact is no longer realistic.

This week, however, that debate has grown more contentious, as some environmental writers and activists have pointed out adaptation's bargain with the devil: because resources are limited, it will undoubtedly divert funds from mitigation. Calling adaptation a "cruel eupmemism," Climate Progress writes that this increasing focus on adaptation is unrealistic, irresponsible, and could allow, rather than prevent, more disasters like Hurricane Katrina across the world:

Tea Party off Broadway

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 12:52 PM EDT

We've heard a lot about the antics of astroturfers opposing health care reform at angry town hall events across the country. But rarely to do we get to see these events in the flesh. And even more rarely than that, do we experience the performance along with music and dancing. TPM shows us that video from an event sponsored by the "Tea Bag Express" that will visit 33 health care reform protests nationwide until it arrives in Washington DC on September 12. This is amazing:

The Latest on Sarah P.

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 12:01 PM EDT

Just the other day I was thinking, "I wonder what's up with Sarah Palin? I haven't heard any good Palin gossip lately."

Well, Vanity Fair to the rescue.  In "Me and Mrs. Palin," Levi Johnston unburdens himself and tells his version of what life was like in the Palin household after the election:

Sarah was sad for a while. She walked around the house pouting. I had assumed she was going to go back to her job as governor, but a week or two after she got back she started talking about how nice it would be to quit and write a book or do a show and make “triple the money.” It was, to her, “not as hard.” She would blatantly say, “I want to just take this money and quit being governor.” She started to say it frequently, but she didn’t know how to do it. When she came home from work, it seemed like she was more and more stressed out.

Does this sound believable?  I'm not sure.  But it does sort of sync up with this report from Politico a couple of days ago:

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin this week will begin accepting and rejecting the more than 1,070 invitations she has received for paid speeches and political appearances since she resigned from office, aides said.

....She’s about 85 percent finished with her book, due out this spring from HarperCollins. Then she’ll begin looking through the inch-and-a-half thick file her lawyer, Robert Barnett, has built of offers for network and cable pundit gigs, documentaries and business opportunities.

Levi also says that when Palin first heard Bristol was pregnant, she insisted over and over that they keep it a secret and then allow her and Todd to adopt the baby when it was born.  I confess that I'm not sure this passes the credibility test either.  But he's pretty clear about it.

Embassy Guards Gone Wild: The Pictures (NSFW)

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 10:09 AM EDT

Warning: The pictures you are about to see are graphic—and may result in you swearing off vodka (and other varieties of hard liquor) permanently. The Project on Government Oversight provided me with a series of photographs—a dozen in all—that depict the bacchanalian goings on at Camp Sullivan, home to the ArmorGroup personnel who guard the nearby US embassy compound in Kabul. On Tuesday, POGO sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton detailing a host of explosive charges relating to ArmorGroup's management of the embassy contract, including evidence of "near-weekly deviant hazing and humiliation of subordinates." According to POGO, "witnesses report that the highest levels of AGNA management in Kabul are aware of and have personally observed—or even engaged in—these activities, but have done nothing to stop them."

As you'll see below, POGO really wasn't exaggerating when it spoke of the "Lord of the Flies environment." Here's the jaw-dropping proof:

The cover shot for a soon-to-be-released Contractors Gone Wild: The Asses of Afghanistan video?