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Late Night: Choosing Sides While Looking in the Mirror

We are through the looking glass, people! (photo by tilaneseven)

We are through the looking glass, people! (photo by tilaneseven)

Paul Krugman, columnizing (yes, I felt like inventing a new word) in today’s New York Times, calls this a “defining moment” in the health care reform debate:

[E]veryone in the political class — by which I mean politicians, people in the news media, and so on, basically whoever is in a position to influence the final stage of this legislative marathon — now has to make a choice. The seemingly impossible dream of fundamental health reform is just a few steps away from becoming reality, and each player has to decide whether he or she is going to help it across the finish line or stand in its way.

Krugman then sketches out the landscape: The GOP (Krugman calls them “conservatives”) has made their bed; they will oppose any attempt at reform. They like being anti-government; they love being anti-Obama.

For what Krugman calls “progressives,” he admits the choice is harder. “We” want more, but there is much in this bill to build upon—and the “medium-strength public option” will cover more people and reduce the deficit over the next decade. Progressives, Krugman surmises, will advocate and/or vote “Yes.”

 El Nobel c. 2008 then tackles the “self-proclaimed centrists”:

The odd thing about this group is that while its members are clearly uncomfortable with the idea of passing health care reform, they’re having a hard time explaining exactly what their problem is. Or to be more precise and less polite, they have been attacking proposed legislation for doing things it doesn’t and for not doing things it does.

Thus, Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut says, “I want to be able to vote for a health bill, but my top concern is the deficit.” That would be a serious objection to the proposals currently on the table if they would, in fact, increase the deficit. But they wouldn’t, at least according to the Congressional Budget Office, which estimates that the House bill, in particular, would actually reduce the deficit by $100 billion over the next decade.

Or consider the remarkable exchange that took place this week between Peter Orszag, the White House budget director, and Fred Hiatt, The Washington Post’s opinion editor. Mr. Hiatt had criticized Congress for not taking what he considers the necessary steps to control health-care costs — namely, taxing high-cost insurance plans and establishing an independent Medicare commission. Writing on the budget office blog — yes, there is one, and it’s essential reading — Mr. Orszag pointed out, not too gently, that the Senate Finance Committee’s bill actually includes both of the allegedly missing measures.

All fair points, but Krugman leaves us a group short. He forgot the White House.

Clearly, the Obama administration wants a “victory”—but what they want that victory to look like is not the same as just saying they are “supportive” of the bills that came out of the House and Senate this week. It is funny to see Krugman quote Orszag referencing the Senate Finance Committee bill. . . OK, not funny—revealing—for it is the Baucus bill, the Max Tax, where the administration’s collective heart, such as it is, lies.

While Reid’s merged bill contains a public option, and Pelosi’s merged bill contains a public option, the SFC bill does not. As a result, the reform victory that the White House is choosing in this defining moment is one that would honor sub-rosa deals cut with AHIP and PhRMA last spring. While the administration’s mouthpieces were all “good on ya’” in public for Harry & Nancy, it has been made clear from the leak-o-rama (or should I say “leak-o-Rahma?”) that they are not only not pleased with the current House and Senate offerings, they still hope to work their backstage mojo magic to re-craft them back to their bipartisany, pro-corporate wants. If they push hard on that front—push for “triggers” to be inserted, for Medicare drug price negotiations to be removed, etc.—then what has this moment defined?

If I were in the inner circle of the Obama administration, I think now would be a good time to look in the mirror. Then, as hard as it might be, what with that whole “left is right” thing, then decide which side—whose side—you want to be on. Do you want to lead, obstruct, or get out of the way? It is after all, a defining moment.

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Gregg Levine

Gregg Levine