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By Jay Cost

HorseRaceBlog Home Page --> October 2009

The Public Option in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll

Last week I argued that question wording might be influencing polling outcomes on the public option - generally skewing the results closer to the Democratic side of the ledger because of contested buzzwords like "choice," "competition," and "option."

I noted at the time that the best way to test this theory was via an apples-to-apples scenario in which we can hold the pollster, the methodology, and the time of the poll constant. That's why I thought the Rasmussen results were significant: Rasmussen changed the wording of questions on the public option and found markedly different results.

The new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, conducted by Hart/McInturff, gives us another such opportunity. They split their sample into two groups (A and B), and ask each subsample a different version of a public option question.

Here's the first version, asked of subsample A.

NBC:WSJ 1.jpg

This is your typically tilted question. The idea of a "choice" is referenced - again, Republicans would hotly dispute this. In this specific wording, respondents are asked how they feel about "(giving) people a choice," forcing opponents of the public option to play the part of Ebenezer Scrooge. Unsurprisingly, this wording produces some good results for public option advocates. Another potential factor driving these results: opponents of the public option might not have a category to register their opposition here. Can they say "not at all important?" Perhaps, but does that accurately reflect their views? A lot of opponents of the public option think it is quite an important issue.

Here's the second version of the public option question, asked of subsample B.

NBC:WSJ 2.jpg

This one is less tilted to the Democratic side, although Republicans would still dispute the idea that a health care marketplace with a public option will actually generate competition. Still, the removal of the highly loaded phrase "(giving) people a choice" makes this less tilted overall - also, this time people have an opportunity to register support or opposition. And notice the big change. A majority of respondents are either uncertain or in opposition.

So, this is another apples-to-apples comparison. As with Rasmussen, NBC/WSJ finds that changes in question wording on the public option can produce big changes in the poll results.

-Jay Cost

Why Is the White House Courting Olympia Snowe?

Howard Fineman is perplexed:

[T]the pursuit of Snowe is pretty close to obsessive, which is not a good thing either for Democrats or for the prospects of health-care reform worthy of the name. First, Snowe's exaggerated prominence is both the result and symbol of Obama's quixotic and ultimately time--wasting pursuit of "bipartisanship." In case the White House hasn't noticed, Republicans in Congress are engaged in what amounts to a sitdown strike. They don't like anything about Obama or his policies; they have no interest in seeing him succeed. Despite the occasional protestation to the contrary, the GOP has no intention of helping him pass any legislation. Snowe may very well end up voting for whatever she and Democrats craft, but that won't make the outcome bipartisan any more than dancing shoes made Tom DeLay Fred Astaire.

First of all, let's clear away some of the underbrush - namely the prickly things Fineman has to say about Republicans. If a health care bill contains: (a) an individual mandate; (b) an employer mandate; (c) plenty of new tax increases; (d) no tort reform; (e) few of the substantive ideas Republicans have been pushing for a while; (f) potentially a government-run insurance program - is it any surprise that almost all Republicans are opposed to it? Isn't that what makes a Republican a Republican? This reads to me like another critique blasting Republicans for not being...Democrats.

Anyway, I have some thoughts on what might account for the White House's "obsessive" pursuit of Snowe. Last week I posited that perhaps it was because Lieberman has already signaled his intention to vote nay, but the latest news on the "Independent Democrat" from Connecticut is that he might vote for cloture then against the bill. If that's true, then Snowe would not be the 60th vote.

Here's an alternative explanation. Below is a look at the ideological scores of key Senate moderates, by two different metrics: their DW-Nominate scores from the 110th Congress and their National Journal "Percent Conservative on Economic Policy" scores on economic policy from the 110th Congress.

Ideological Scores of Senate Moderates.jpg

The DW-Nominate scores typically run from -1 (liberal) to 1 (conservative). The NJ scores are pretty self-explanatory. You can really appreciate the ideological polarization inherent to Congress here by looking at the DW-Nominate gap between, say, Lisa Murkowski and Evan Bayh. There is a big gulf here, which helps explain that - contrary to Mr. Fineman's analysis - the GOP is in opposition not because they "have no interest in seeing him succeed," but because there is a huge ideological divide between Democratic party leadership, and even the most moderate members of the GOP caucus. If the lack of bipartisanship is due to the fact that Republicans have become more conservative, it's also due to the fact that Democrats have become more liberal.

But notice those peculiar members right smack dab in the center: Collins, Snowe, and Nelson. In actuality, each of them is closer to one another than they are to their fellow partisans. Collins, Snowe, Nelson, and Specter (before he jumped ship) are almost like a third party in Congress: the hyper-moderate party.

So, here's a two-part explanation for why Snowe is being wooed so aggressively. One: Collins, Snowe, Nelson are essentially identical on the ideological scale; accordingly, if one of them supports the bill, the others might follow suit. Two: Snowe voted for the bill in the Senate Finance Committee; if she eventually bails, that could be sufficient to scare Nelson off.

My intuition is that if a final reform bill can get 60 votes, it should actually get 62 votes because of these three hyper-moderates. However, if Snowe switches from a yay to a nay, that could be sufficient to ward the other two off.

Bottom line: on an ideological level, it might be fair to say that there are three factions in the Senate: liberals, conservatives, and this small group of moderates. It's not enough for Democrats simply to unite the liberals. They also have to find a way to include at least one of these moderates. On the stimulus bill, these moderates were a package deal. They might be again, in which case it makes sense to court Olympia Snowe, the one moderate of the three who participated in the committee process.

-Jay Cost

The Problem with the Health Care Debate

A few weeks ago, I made this point about understanding what's really happening in the health care debate:

One of the problems with writing about Congressional policymaking as it happens is that a lot of the real meaty stuff happens behind closed doors, and leaders who give "progress reports" do not have an incentive to offer accurate assessments. Instead, they are better off giving overly bullish reports, i.e. spin. So, here is the trouble I find myself in. I suspect that most of the members who speak to the press are trying to spin me. I also do not trust the journalists producing the news stories that serve as my primary data set. I do not think they can differentiate the spin from the reality - and in fairness to them, I do not see how they could. So, like Descartes, I am in quite the epistemological quandary here. But unlike old René, I do not have an insightful axiom like "I think therefore I am" to build knowledge upon.

I am usually very hesitant to quote myself, but I wanted to bring this point back because it is really salient. Scanning across the major insider Washington publications this afternoon - I noted these headlines:

What's the status of the public option in the House?
-Politico: "Pelosi lacks votes for most sweeping public option"
-The Hill: "Pelosi calls an emergency meeting on push for 'robust' public option"
-Roll Call: "Pelosi Still Pushing for 'Robust' Public Option"
-Politico (again): Pelosi publicly whipping on robust public option

What does Obama think about the public option?
-Roll Call: "Obama Expresses Skepticism to Senators on Public Option"
-The Hill: "Obama working on getting Senate votes for public option"

Remember, all of this is happening after we thought the public option was dead but now it's back...AND after we thought Obama was abandoning the public option but then he gave it a solid endorsement in his September address to Congress.

Also, will moderate Democrats vote on cloture for a bill they disagree with?
-The Hill suggests maybe so.
-Congress Daily suggests maybe not.

This is like a merry-go-round. Around and around we go. The reason? All of this is happening behind closed doors, and public access to the debate is highly constricted. These journalists are doing good work getting as much information as possible out of Democratic leaders, but so long as the debate remains behind closed doors, we just can't be sure about what will be in the final House and Senate bills.

Something similar happened with Senate Finance over the summer. They were making good work, making good work, making goo..and then the whole thing collapsed. You just never know when legislators are meeting secretly and our source of information are press reports.

-Jay Cost

Does the Public Want a Public Option?

Progressives in the blogosphere and the halls of Congress are pushing for the so-called "public option." One of their major arguments is that the public wants it.

But does it?

From a certain perspective, the public option polls very well. Let's look at some of the polls on this in the current RCP average of Obama's job approval, being careful to note question wording.

Here's ABC News/Washington Post:

ABC News:WaPo.jpg

Here's Marist:


Here's CBS News/New York Times:

CBS News.jpg

Here's CNN:


Case closed, right?

Not exactly.

In the aggregate, the polls present a very mixed picture. These numbers are good for reform efforts, but other numbers are bad. For instance:

-Respondents don't generally approve of the reform bills. In some polls, a majority disapproves.

- Respondents give mixed marks to Obama for his handling of the issue.

-Respondents strongly disapprove of the job Congress is doing with health care.

-Only a small portion of respondents believes they will actually be helped by the health care reform proposals.

-All in all, since the health care debate really heated up in July, Obama's job approval has dropped in the RCP Average from about 59% to 52%. His disapproval rating has gone from about 34% to 43%

How can we reconcile these gloomy numbers with the sunny results on the public option?

It might be due to the public's lack of information. I'm sure that the average polling respondent is paying some attention to the health care debate, but she is paying much less attention than political junkies. This will limit the amount of information she actually has in her mental filing cabinet. So, the crucial question is: even if she has absorbed some pro- and anti-reform arguments, does she have enough information to relate them to specific reform proposals? Color me skeptical on that one. I think your average respondent - even with some general opinions on reform - will have a hard time using those broad considerations to evaluate items like the individual mandate, guaranteed issue, community rating, and...wait for it!...the public option.

So, asking about specific proposals might be taking the conversation too far into the woods for the average respondent - and she is going to have a hard time recalling a relevant piece of information upon which to base a response. Instead, she might use the question itself as a basis for her answer. It follows that the information or perspective given in the question could make her more or less partial to the proposal under consideration.

And the pollsters are frequently providing information that is partial to the Democratic side of the ledger. As Kellyanne Conway argues:

Asking an under-informed public in a poll about "public option" is incomplete. It calls for a response to feel-good phraseology rather than a probing of underlying ideology. "Public option" in health care is not so different from "campaign finance reform," "Violence Against Women's Act," "revenue enhancements" or for that matter, "world peace' and "no rain this Saturday."

The pollsters are using plenty of "feel-good phraseology." ABC News/WaPo presents the idea that the government insurance plan would "compete" with private insurance plans. This is a contested notion, as Republicans think that the public option will drive private insurance away.

Marist uses the phrase "public option," which has become the conventional term for this insurance reform - but is nevertheless an intentionally constructed phrase designed to garner maximum public support. "Government-run health care" is foreboding, but "public option" is inviting.

CNN uses the phrases "public health insurance option" and "compete."

CBS News/NY Times specifically relates the public option to Medicare, a program that is so popular that Democrats are now thinking about reframing their pitch for the public option as merely an extension of Medicare to all. I wonder if they got that idea from CBS News/NY Times!

If the theory that question wording is playing a role is correct, then altering the wording should induce a change in the results. So, what happens when information less partial to the Democratic side is introduced? To start answering this question, let's consider the Gallup results, which are decidedly less bullish on the public option:


Like ABC News/WaPo, Gallup uses the Democratic buzzword "compete." However, Gallup also uses a Republican buzzword: "government-run." This is opposed to the weaker formulation - "government administered" - offered by CBS News/New York Times and CNN. With this more balanced choice of words, Gallup finds a roughly even split. I would not call this definitive evidence, but it suggests that we might be on the right track.

Let's take a look at Rasmussen. He has offered a series of really interesting questions on health care. First, he gives a basic version of the question that ABC News/WaPo, CBS News/NY Times, Marist, and CNN asked:

Would you favor or oppose the creation of a government-sponsored non-profit health insurance option that people could choose instead of a private health insurance plan?

That gets strong approval, as per usual when people hear words like "choose," "compete," and "option."

Then Rasmussen asks this follow up:

Suppose that the creation of a government-sponsored non-profit health insurance option encouraged companies to drop private health insurance coverage for their workers. Workers would then be covered by the government option. Would you favor or oppose the creation of a government-sponsored non-profit health insurance option if it encouraged companies to drop private health insurance coverage for their workers?

What happens when this Republican argument is substituted for the Democratic argument? Support for the public option plummets dramatically. Nearly 3/5ths of all respondents voiced opposition to the public option when it was phrased in this way.

Additionally, Rasmussen asked whether respondents thought the public option would save taxpayers money (they didn't), whether they thought it would offer better health insurance than private insurance (again, no), and whether people preferred to have a public option or a guarantee that nobody will lose their current coverage (the guarantee won in a landslide).

These results are very consequential. After all, Rasmussen is holding a lot of factors constant, enabling us to observe: same poll + same methodology + different frame for the question = different answer. That strongly suggests that the frame used for the public option question goes a long way in determining the answer the public gives.

So, does this mean that the public is actually against the public option? I'd say no. Instead, I would suggest that the public lacks sufficient information about that specific item to deliver a firm opinion. Accordingly, its opinion varies depending upon question wording, priming effects, the ebbs and flows of the news cycle, and so on.

-Jay Cost

Joe Lieberman, Olympia Snowe, and the Health Care Filibuster

Ezra Klein had an interesting read on the health care negotiations taking place in the Senate. Noting that Olympia Snowe is now one of the few participants in the high-level talks, Klein hypothesizes:

Democrats really want this bill to be bipartisan -- to the point that they're giving the Republican a space in the negotiations equivalent to the chairmen of the two relevant committees. Indeed, I wouldn't be shocked if this perk had been negotiated in advance of Snowe's vote yesterday.

This shifts the room's balance of power substantially: The negotiations were previously confined to one liberal Democrat and one centrist Democrat. Now they'll be between one liberal Democrat, one centrist Democrat, and one moderate Republican. In practice, this is likely to mean that Baucus will have something of a trump card against Dodd. If there's a particularly thorny dispute, and Snowe weighs in strongly alongside Baucus, it's hard to imagine Reid siding with Dodd, except in the most extraordinary of cases.

This is a distinct possibility. Given the importance attached to bipartisanship, can they exclude her even if they wanted to? How would it look if they told their sole Republican supporter to take a walk?

Of course, we cannot know for sure why Snowe is involved, given the secrecy of these closed door negotiations. I'd raise another possibility that I think is worth considering. It is not incompatible with Klein's suggestion - and I offer it speculatively because nobody outside the Senate knows anything for sure.

Let's assume that the Democrats have decided not to pursue reconciliation (at least not yet), and they are looking for a 60-vote coalition in the Senate. In that situation, you'd want the chamber's marginal legislator in the talks. He/she is the 60th vote, the one to break a Republican filibuster. By definition, if the marginal legislator supports the final product, the final product passes. At first blush, having Snowe in the room makes no sense. To get past a filibuster, all you need are the 60 Democrats. Wouldn't somebody like Ben Nelson or Blanche Lincoln be the marginal legislator? Snowe would presumably be the 61st legislator, thus making her vote nice for appearances but not crucial. Right?

Not necessarily. I'd note with interest this video snippet that has been making the rounds.

If Lieberman is a "no" on the Finance bill, then presumably he'd be a "no" for a more liberal bill produced by melding the Finance bill with the HELP bill. He's already on record as a "no" on the public option, and in this clip he sounds distinctly Republican in his talk of scaling back the size of the reforms.

But why would Lieberman be a "no" to the Finance, HELP, and House bills? After all, he is still a Democrat, even if he qualifies it with the adjective "Independent."

Lieberman will be 70 years old in 2012, the year he is up for reelection. Let's assume he wants another term. What might his electoral calculation be?

Well, you can bet your bottom dollar that the left is going to target him once again. They may or may not be able to field a viable candidate, but Lieberman would be smart to operate under the assumption that they will. Lieberman fended off a challenge from his left flank in 2006, defeating Ned Lamont in the general election by 10%. However, GOP nominee Alan Schlesinger won just 9% of the vote. In fact, 18% of all voters were self-identified Republicans who voted for Lieberman. 14% of all voters were self-identified conservatives who voted for Lieberman. Simply put, Lieberman won that 2006 race in large part because conservative Republicans voted for him, not Schlesinger.

This means that Lieberman now has to win over voters well to the right of his old electoral coalition from when he was a typical Democrat. Losing the support of the left means he must go looking for conservatives, whom he managed to find in sufficient numbers three years ago. So, suppose Lieberman antagonizes conservatives in his home state so much that they get behind a more viable candidate in 2012. That Republican wins 20% of the vote rather than 9%. If the Democratic nominee can replicate Lamont's 39%, Lieberman would lose.

This might explain Lieberman's unequivocal "no" on the Finance bill in the above clip. If he is worried that a vote with Obama on health care will damage him with his right flank, then he has an incentive to oppose the efforts.

The challenge for Lieberman, of course, is that he now has two flanks to keep happy. He has a right flank that could drift over to a Republican, and he still has a left flank that could drift over to somebody like Lamont or Richard Blumenthal. That's the challenge when you are the centrist candidate in a three-way race. Maybe Lieberman's calculation here is that, given the soft support among voters for the reform efforts, his best bet is to endorse reform generally but oppose these bills. Meanwhile, he votes with the Democrats on less divisive issues to lock down his remaining Democratic supporters. In that situation, maybe his Republican backers won't turn on him, and the moderate and Independent-leaning Democrats will not hold his "no" vote on health care against him. The progressives, of course, will continue to hate him - but they're no longer in his coalition.

I'm not saying that this strategy would work. By sitting between the two parties, Lieberman's reelection prospects are highly uncertain, to say the least. It's possible that, when push comes to shove, he just cannot win reelection from this centrist position, no matter how hard he tries. At a minimum, it is fair to say that Lieberman's switch from Democrat to "Independent" Democrat makes him more dependent on conservatives for reelection than he has been in previous cycles. If he is planning to run again in 2012, he has to figure out a way to keep them happy without alienating the moderate Democrats who stuck with him against Lamont. Maybe this is his solution to that tricky problem.

If so, then Olympia Snowe might be indeed the 60th, marginal legislator. That could explain why she is in the room with Harry Reid, Chris Dodd, and Max Baucus.

Like I said, this is speculative. I have used the words "if," "maybe," "perhaps," and "suppose" quite a bit in this post. I just offer this as one theory out of many plausible explanations that could account for what is happening behind the closed doors in the Senate

-Jay Cost

Republicans Should Be Concerned About What's Happening to the RNC

One of the features of contemporary American politics that I find really interesting is that voters see themselves as ideologues rather than partisans. "I'm a conservative first and a Republican second." Or, "I'm a progressive who happens to affiliate with the Democratic Party!" I take this to be a consequence of America's ambivalence toward the two-party system, which dates back to the Founding.

I think this anti-party sentiment is generally fine. It actually has a lot of benefits. Americans like to see themselves not as factionalists, but as nationalists. The ideologies they subscribe to have a universal character to them. Conservativism and liberalism offer something for everybody. The parties, on the other hand, are factional. They (almost) always have been. I think that helps explain the antipathy toward the parties in the mass public, and the preference among many strong partisans to see themselves as ideologues rather than partisans. It's also a way for them to differentiate themselves from the party caucus in the Congress, which is almost never popular.

Yet this aversion to party politics does have some unfortunate side effects. Conservatives might read National Review, might never miss an installment of the Rush Limbaugh Show, and might dutifully put out the quadrennial Bush/Cheney or McCain/Palin yard sign - but they rarely participate in party politics. The party organizations are not the locus of mass political activity. In decades past, some local and state parties did have that role, but not any more. Instead, today's party organizations are little more than legal money-laundering units that help candidates get around campaign finance laws.

In the last five years, I have noticed a peculiar phenomenon about the national party committees. Twice in a row the out-party's committee seems to have been "captured" by an ambitious politician who seems more interested in making a name for himself rather than doing the nitty-gritty, unglamorous work of laundering money. I think two factors help explain this.

First, the national party organizations remain weak (as they always have been), but state party organizations have been on the decline for some time. They are not a place where partisans meet up and participate in politics. This means that ambitious politicos looking to make a name for themselves are not heading to the state parties, and of course not going to the national organizations. Instead, they look to be congressional aides, White House staffers, or maybe to a spot in a state legislature. Simply put, there is a shallow talent pool.

Second, the party organizations do control quite a lot of money. That's a consequence of federal law - first the Federal Elections Campaign Act (FECA) and now the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA, a.k.a. McCain-Feingold). As is typical with broad laws like these, they are full of unintended side-effects. Combined, these laws make the parties an excellent place for donors with spare dollars to send their cash. Because the Supreme Court struck down provisions of the BCRA, the parties can spend unlimited dollars on behalf of candidates so long as the dollars are "independent" (yeah right!). All of this means that the national committees literally raise hundreds of millions of dollars every cycle.

Combined, these factors provide a strong incentive to ambitious, semi-famous politicians to serve as national committee chairman as a way to stay relevant. These pols might not be able to win elections themselves, but candidates who want to win have to come to them. Plus, the cable networks are always happy to host them - with the absurd implication that they are somehow the "leaders" of their respective parties. Because the talent pool is so shallow in the party organization system, there is not a great deal of competition.

Case in point: Howard Dean. Dean's flame-out in the 2004 primaries was so spectacular that I don't think he had anywhere else to go. So, he ran for chair of the DNC, and served there for four years. Today, Democrats control the White House, all the executive agencies, and both chambers of Congress. Yet why does Howard Dean not have a government job or even a prominent non-governmental agency position? I ask that question rhetorically, for the answer to me is pretty obvious: he did a crap job as DNC Chairman, taking it from the fundraising powerhouse that it was in the Terry McAuliffe years and turning it into the runt of the Democratic litter.

I have suspected for a while that Michael Steele might ultimately fall into the same category. Politically, he was sort of in a dead-end. He had served a brief stint as Lieutenant Governor of Maryland, but then lost a 2006 Senate race to Ben Cardin. He did not have a lot of political opportunities by the time 2009 rolled around, and perhaps that is why he ran for the RNC chair.

His brief tenure to date has only enhanced my suspicions. He talks about expanding the party to blacks and Hispanics. That's a good thing in theory, but it is not the job of the RNC chairman. Worse, the appeal seems to me to be shallow and vain. The party would reach out not by developing new policy proposals to appeal to these voters, but by promoting its new, oh-so-hip chairman, i.e. lots of face time for Michael Steele!

And of course, there are the incredibly foolish things he says. These began to dribble out of his mouth literally as soon as he won the position. Remember this message he delivered to President Obama when he won the chairmanship? "I would say to the new president, congratulations. It is going to be an honor to spar with him...And I would follow that up with: How do you like me now?" The vanity of that line is matched only by its utter stupidity. Actually, the two are intertwined. You'd have to be vain and stupid to think that the President of the United States would ever give a second thought to the chairman of the Republican National Committee. The President probably laughed when he heard that. I sure did.

The gaffes have slowed over the last few months, but they have not stopped. Just recently, he launched a blog called "What Up?" whose inaugural post contained not one, but two grammatical mistakes. Allah over at HotAir blogged about this, and he summed up his assessment with a single guttural noise: groan. That the RNC has since changed Steele's blog name is a sign that either they came to their senses, or somebody who is somebody told them to dump it. Personally, I thought it was incredibly condescending. Steele's strategy for appealing to minority voters includes butchering the English language? What does that say about Steele's opinion of these targeted voters?

Steele's priorities appear to be misplaced, and his erroneous view of what a good chairman does might ultimately manifest itself in FEC reports. So far, he has not done an exemplary job of raising money. Year-to-date, the RNC has pulled in about $51 million dollars in contributions. That is $5 million less than 2007 at this point, $22 million less than 2005, and $19 million less than 2003. The RNC under Steele got off to a very slow start - the February through June '09 reports showed the RNC raising less than the other years every month. The July and September reports were better, but August was still behind. Plus, an important point to remember about 2003 and 2007 is that there were Republican presidential candidates collecting dollars that might otherwise have gone to the RNC. Michael Steele does not have that kind of competition this year. The best comparison in the McCain-Feingold era is 2005, and Steele is well behind.

Above all, the RNC needs to focus on its fundraising infrastructure. It must be ready for the Obama money tsunami that will be crashing ashore in the fall of 2012. If you thought the President raised a lot of money last cycle, you haven't seen anything yet! Also, the party needs to figure out why the Democrats have managed not only to catch up to, but actually exceed, the Republicans in fundraising - this after the banning of soft money, which had historically helped the Democrats. That's a puzzler that should have Republicans - above all Michael Steele - thinking about innovation. This should be happening to the exclusion of guest hosting radio shows, Mr. Chairman!

Republicans should be worried about Michael Steele. I wouldn't press the panic button just yet. The last report was not too bad, so maybe he is turning a corner. Yet all told there are big reasons for concern. If Steele cannot start behaving himself and demonstrate competence in fundraising, Republicans might want to start looking at other places to contribute their dollars. If Steele's RNC cannot accomplish these basic tasks, why should Republicans assume it can spend the money well, either? There are alternative sources for party dollars: the National Republican Congressional Committee for House candidates, the National Republican Senatorial Committee for Senate candidates, and the Republican Governors Association for gubernatorial candidates. I'd note that Democrats did something like this in 2006 and 2008: as the DNC's fundraising lagged because of Dean's ineptitude, the DCCC and the DSCC prospered as smart Democratic donors found a more reliable place to contribute their dollars.

Republicans might not participate directly in the party committees, but they can always vote their disapproval with their dollars. They might have to do that.

-Jay Cost

The Baucus Bill Is a Go...For Now

The Baucus bill is set to pass the Senate Finance Committee today, which will be good for Democrats in helping manage the news cycle. The media will score this a win, even though everybody expected it would pass. Plus, I'm not sure why George Stephanopoulos would have pegged the odds of Snowe voting yea at less than 50%. I did not have a doubt in my mind that she would support it. This is a vote to move the process forward, and thus keep Olympia Snowe in the game. Case in point: Mike Enzi and Chuck Grassley are set to vote no today, which will likely signal their end in determining the course of the legislative process. They'll get their floor votes, the opportunity to offer amendments, and that will probably be that. Snowe's yes vote, on the other hand, purchases for her the right to remain a key player. Snowe is one of those senators who can almost always be counted on to find the political center in the Senate, wherever it may be in real terms, because that is where the action is. Arlen Specter used to be the master at sniffing out the central ground...at least until Joe Sestak forced him to tack to the left.

Still, the Baucus bill is a highly problematic piece of legislation - yesterday's PricewaterhouseCoopers report, sponsored by the American Health Insurance Providers, is a great case in point of the problems it has. I noted last week as regards the Baucus sausage that there was a peculiar left-right coalition aligned in opposition to it. Here's more evidence of that. We have the AHIP set to lobby against the Baucus bill, and ditto the labor unions!

I'd affiliate myself with the sentiments expressed by Patterico here on the PwC/AHIP report. It misses the point entirely to discard the the analysis as political: that's clearly what it is meant to be! If the industry groups that had been playing along with the White House start breaking away, and worse yet start playing politics against reform, that's a net loss for supporters of the reform efforts. Additionally, it's not surprising in the least to see Republicans not embrace the AHIP report. If AHIP is signaling it is going to start moving against the reforms, why not let them take the lead on it? Why affiliate yourselves with the health insurers? You're not going to help them and you're only going to hurt yourselves, considering how unpopular they are.

The challenge that the Democrats faced in the summer remains: can they find a compromise that (a) wins 218 votes in the House; (b) wins 60 votes in the Senate; (c) is not some Frankensteinian monster that scares off the broad middle, which Mickey Kaus has cleverly taken to calling the congressional "id." I didn't have an answer to that question in August, and the Baucus vote does not help me answer it today.

I will say that the Democrats seem highly intent on passing a bill, and leaders are clearly trying to develop a sense of momentum. That's good news for reform efforts. Of course, momentum is only a real thing when we are discussing Newtonian physics. It's simply a metaphor in politics. I think it refers to a sense of urgency and necessity. Their minds are sharp and focused in search of a compromise because the party's reputation is on the line. It needs to get something done. Yet momentum - at least as I have defined it here - does not get around the basic collective action dilemma that this highly diverse political party faces. Are the progressives willing to sacrifice a public option for the sake of the party's reputation? Alternatively, is Blanche Lincoln willing to sacrifice her job by supporting a public option for the sake of the party's reputation? That's the core challenge. One side, possibly both, will have to bend. There are other tensions on how to pay for it, mandates (possibly), and so on.

We might not have an answer to these questions for some time. We certainly are not going to be able to count on reliable updates about the legislative process until final bills are produced, seeing as how the bill drafting is now almost entirely on one side of the aisle and entirely behind the closed doors of leadership offices. It's up to Nancy Pelosi in the House and Harry Reid in the Senate - working in their own offices with fellow Democrats - to find the compromise position that has so far eluded them. I expect reports to be very, very bullish about things, regardless of whether or not they are making real progress. Maybe they will find that common ground; maybe they won't. We'll just have to wait and see.

In fact, the Baucus vote indicates the Democrats' smart strategy of circling the wagons and keeping their disagreements in private (for now). All 13 Senate Finance Democrats voted for it, even though at least three of them - Jay Rockefeller and Ron Wyden on the left and Blanche Lincoln in the center - have real concerns with it. Those were probably votes for the party, and I expect Democrats to (mostly) stick together so long as the wheeling-and-dealing is underway.

-Jay Cost

How Is This a "Farce?"

People are worked up that Barack Obama has won the Nobel Peace Prize, but isn't the Nobel Committee just following the lead of the United States on this one?

Let's look at the top-line qualification of the men this country has elected to be President:

(1) George Washington: General
(2) John Adams: Vice-President
(3) Thomas Jefferson: Vice-President
(4) James Madison: Secretary of State
(5) James Monroe: Secretary of State
(6) John Quincy Adams: Secretary of State
(7) Andrew Jackson: General
(8) Martin van Buren: Vice-President
(9) William Henry Harrison: General
(10) James K. Polk: Speaker of the House
(12) Zachary Taylor: General
(14) Franklin Pierce: Congressman / Senator (10 years)
(15) James Buchanan: Secretary of State
(16) Abraham Lincoln: Congressman (2 years)
(18) Ulysses S. Grant: General
(19) Rutherford Hayes: Congressman (2 years) / Governor of Ohio (5 years)
(20) James Garfield: Congressman (18 years)
(22) Grover Cleveland: Governor of New York (2 years)
(23) Benjamin Harrison: Senator (6 years)
(25) William McKinley: Congressman (12 years) / Governor of Ohio (4 years)
(26) Theodore Roosevelt: President
(27) William Howard Taft: Secretary of War
(28) Woodrow Wilson: Governor of New Jersey (2 years)
(29) Warren G. Harding: Senator (6 years)
(30) Calvin Coolidge: President
(31) Herbert Hoover: Secretary of Commerce
(32) Franklin Roosevelt: Assistant Secretary of the Navy / Governor of New York (4 years)
(33) Harry Truman: President
(34) Dwight Eisenhower: General
(35) John F. Kennedy: Congressman / Senator (14 years)
(36) Lyndon Johnson: President
(37) Richard Nixon: Vice-President
(39) Jimmy Carter: Governor of Georgia (4 years)
(40) Ronald Reagan: Governor of California (8 years)
(41) George H.W. Bush: Vice-President
(42) Bill Clinton: Governor of Arkansas (12 years)
(43) George W. Bush: Governor of Texas (6 years)
(44) Barack Obama: Senator (4 years)

Barack Obama might not be the least-credentialed person ever to win election as President, but he is pretty darned close. This is a highly subjective process, so I'll just give you my personal opinion. When it comes to qualifications, I would rank Barack Obama in a three-way tie for last place with Woodrow Wilson and Grover Cleveland. Obama technically served four years in the United States Senate, but the nature of our permanent campaign means that he was only around for two of them. Lincoln's time in government was as limited as the other three, but I'd place him a notch higher because he put his reputation on the line in opposition to the Mexican War (the country's original "war of choice!").

The Democrats chose Obama to be their nominee over Hillary Clinton, who was clearly more qualified. Next, the whole country elected him over John McCain, who has been in the Congress for over 20 years. Both times, the man with the half-page résumé and inspiring rhetoric was selected over opponents who could point to tangible, if less grandiose, contributions they had actually made.

This is why I am perplexed. The Democratic Party, then the entire country, elevated Barack Obama to the presidency not based on any actual accomplishments or manifest experience in handling the affairs of state, but rather his extravagant promises of change. Hasn't the Nobel Committee done the same thing here? If you were fine with the former, how is the latter "farcical?"

-Jay Cost

The Baucus Sausage

So, the CBO score of the Baucus bill has the mainstream media declaring this a victory for the Democrats' health care efforts. The New York Times leads the way:

Health Care Bill Gets Green Light in Cost Analysis

The Senate Finance Committee legislation to revamp the health care system would provide coverage to 29 million uninsured Americans but would still pare future federal deficits by slowing the growth of spending on medical care, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said Wednesday....

Democrats rejoiced. Several wavering Democrats and one Republican, Senator Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, had said they would be influenced by the budget office report.

Is this a win? Perhaps, depending upon your perspective. If the goal is to win a news cycle, advancing the preferred narrative about the inevitability of legislative success, then yes. It's definitely a win. Since the mainstream media rules the news cycle, it's no surprise that it is partial to that view, and would count it a victory as the Times does.

But dig a little deeper and you'll notice a peculiar phenomenon. If there was to be an up-or-down vote on the Baucus bill, my guess is that it would be defeated by a left-right coalition. I base that conclusion on a perusal of the progressive and conservative blogs, which generally consider the Baucus bill to be horrible. So, in terms of actually finding a solution to the nation's health care problems, I'd say no. It's not much of a win.

Let's drill this down a bit. This is Jon Walker from FireDogLake:

Leave aside the lack of a public option and the fact that the weak exchanges are probably unworkable. And, for now, let's ignore the poorly designed regulator framework and the huge give away to PhRMA. (I know, big stuff to leave aside). Let's just look at Baucus's bill from 10,000 feet.

For starters, being "covered" under Baucus's reform really is no guaranty of financial security. The yearly cap on out-of-pocket expenses for a family is $11,900 (and that is not counting the cost of premiums, which could be double that). How many middle income families have the financial reserves to take that kind of hit if a spouse needs serious medical treatments over the course of a few years? This bill would reduce--but will not end--one of the greatest shames in our nation. That of "under-insured" Americans forced into medical bankruptcy.

The other major problem is that there is no major reduction in the number of uninsured until 2014. It will be roughly 44 months after the bill is signed before we start seeing a noticeable reduction in the number of uninsured. There is not one but two elections before anything really gets started. Looking closely at the new CBO report, it won't be until 2014 or 2015 that we start seeing a serious reduction in the number of uninsured.

Even after the bill is in full swing, around 2015, the number of uninsured who will be "covered" is only 27-29 million. Even after reform is fully implemented their will still be 24-25 million people in this country without health insurance, a full 9% of our population. Ignoring undocumented immigrants you are still talking about 17 million Americans without health insurance. This bill will not produce universal health care. It will not even produce near universal health care. After this bill goes into effect we will need another almost equally massive reform effort if we want to get to universal health coverage.

Walker's piece is entitled: "Baucus Health Care Bill: In a Word, Awful." It's pretty clear why he thinks that. The Baucus bill simply is not doing enough to keep costs down for the average American family. It also fails to expand coverage far enough. Walker also seems concerned that future Congresses will have an opportunity to tinker with the bill without affecting anybody's actual coverage because of the delayed start. He is right to list this as a worry: each Congress is sovereign and cannot be bound by the actions of a past one.

Walker's piece also hints at a point I have made before: many on the left hate the idea of an individual mandate without a public option. Progressives see that as a big sloppy kiss to the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. This is why Obama's continued insistence that the public option is only one factor has generally been ignored...by both sides.

Lest we think that the progressive bloggers do not have representation on these points in the Congress itself, here is Anthony Weiner's response to the bill:

"There's no public option, since there's no real cost containment in the Baucus bill," Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) told MSNBC. "So frankly that big problem goes un-addressed which is why the bill probably won't be taken very seriously from here on out."

Now let's tune to the right side of the dial. What do we hear? Complaints about the huge, hidden costs of the Baucus bill that conservatives think will ultimately hit the average American square in the jaw. Keith Hennessey rips the Baucus plan a new one. Among his many critiques, he points out that there is a strong likelihood that - claims of deficit reduction aside - the bill will increase the costs of total health care spending in the United States. So much for bending the cost curve. Hennessey also points out that the bill would create an indefensible inequality: those who receive their insurance from private companies would end up receiving smaller subsidies than those who get their insurance through the exchanges. He goes on to suggest that this would create perverse incentives for individuals and employers.

Over at National Review, James Capretta argues that the Baucus bill is full of gimmicks, essentially "shoehorn(ing) a $1.5 to $2.0 trillion "universal coverage" scheme into an $830 billion sack. " It's replete with spending cuts that will not be made, plus it forces people to pay indirectly for the new layer of "regulations, taxes, and fees" through decreased wages, a point Hennessey makes as well. Greg Mankiw thinks the bill might mean an 80%+ marginal tax rate on workers between 100% and 200% of the poverty level.

So, the left and the right hate it. Strangely enough, they seem to have the same basic reason: average people are going to get squeezed. The left says that the bill does not do enough to keep their health care costs down. The right says the bill is going to reduce their disposable income.

God help us all if both sides are correct.

Therein lies another problem with omnibus bills such as this, and why I really fault the President for not lowering his sights. As I have noted many times, omnibus bills have a reduced chance of passage because they deal with so many issues, thus increasing the likelihood that a legislator will find a poison pill in there somewhere. But that's not the only problem. Suppose that there is a hypothetical bill that could pass: what will it look like? Will it be full of half-measures that are the product of political compromises, rather than a coherent attempt to deal with the problem in a straightforward manner? Will most legislators actually dislike it, and only support it for political purposes?

The recent suggestion that Obama and the Democratic majority need a bill - any bill - should give everybody (Republicans, Democrats, and Independents) pause. When politicians start talking like that, they're signaling a willingness to sign onto a bill that might not actually fix the problems just so they can claim "success." As regards the Baucus bill, I'd note with interest that its key enthusiasts are Max Baucus, Kent Conrad, Olympia Snowe, and sundry House Blue Dogs. All of these legislators share the same quality: they are of a different party than their respective electorates. The Baucus bill might help them with their reelection efforts by minimizing the extent to which their voters are pissed off at them, but does that make it a good bill?

The challenge the Democrats have is finding some sort of compromise position that can unite the various factions of their diverse caucus. The concern I have is that said compromise is going to be an incoherent jumble that does not address the central challenges of American health care, and perhaps makes them more severe. That is the sense I get from reading the left and the right on the Baucus bill, which is - at least per the conceit of its designer - supposed to be "balanced." That might be good politics, but is it good policy? I'd say not this time. Whenever the left and the right agree on something, you can usually take that consensus to the bank. In this case, it means that the Baucus sausage just plain stinks.

-Jay Cost

The Olympics, Obama, and the Permanent Campaign

Chicago has lost its Olympics bid, despite Obama's insertion into the process. People are shocked because they figured that Obama would fly in if and only if the deal was done.

But why? That assumes a typical allocation of the presidential prestige. President Obama has been anything but typical in the use of that asset. Let's remember that this is the President who in the last nine months has appeared on both 11:30 PM talk shows. This is the President who can be seen on TBS in a spot advertising the upcoming George Lopez Show. This is the President who has had more primetime news conferences and more joint addresses to Congress than any president up to this point in his campaign tenure. This is the only President to pull a "Ginsberg" (and my guess is that he'll set the record for that when it's all said and done). This is the President who has gone out on the campaign trail again and again and again, even though the election is long since passed. This is the President who puts himself - and his family - on the cover of all sorts of supermarket and newsstand magazines month after month. This is the President who never hesitates to inject himself into the public consciousness for any little reason he likes.

This is the permanent campiagn. We have talked about its imminence for years. Well, now it's here and this is what it looks like. This is what a President does in it. Previous Presidents would only put themselves out there in this kind of diplomatic situation if there was no more campaigning, lobbying, and cajoling to be done. But this President sees himself above all as the chief campaigner, lobbyist, and cajoler. That explains so many of the ways in which the Obama Presidency differs from previous administrations (Democratic and Republican alike), and it also explains why we should not be so shocked by this result. This particular campaign failed.

I, for one, am exhausted by our new permanent campaign. That might sound strange coming from somebody who runs the Horse Race Blog, but it is true. The ominpresence of the Obama campaign apparatus is, frankly, wearing me down. I can't get away from him or it, even in my down times. Watching the Office on TBS used to be a real pleasure for me and the missus, but now we must be interrupted by the President of the United States cracking lame jokes at us in the promotion of a second-rate comedian. There is no escape.

It's not simply because enough is enough, though that is part of it. It's also because he is different now. He holds the executive authority of the United States within his person at this moment, and it is sobering to see the holder of such vast power on the cover of a magazine urging us to follow his fitness regime. By continuing the permanent campaign into his tenure so thoroughly, he has given new meaning to the phrase "big government." When he is on the cover of Men's Health telling us how to work out, in a certain sense, the federal government's executive authority is on the cover of Men's Health telling us how to work out.

And so it continues today. What should have been a story about Chicago - or better yet, Rio (good for you, Rio!) - is now a story about...Obama. Of course. Because just about everything in the public sphere must, must become a story about Obama. Because Obama injects himself and his campaign appartus/mindset/worldview into everything. And so, in this case, what would otherwise have been a "mere" rejection of Chicago and Mayor Daley has now become a rejection of the entire country. Why? Because of his decision to perpetuate the permanent campaign while holding the power of the executive.

I was hesitant to place a bet on the outcome of the health care debates, but I'll place one here. Sooner or later, the American people are going to say, "Enough is enough" with this constant, incessant politicking that is inevitably built around the specialness of Barack Obama. This is not the way past presidents have behaved, and I believe for good reason: the old way is the way the people like it. If this President continues to inject himself into every little thing - such as he did with this Olympian blunder - at some point he is going to exhaust the country, thereby losing the goodwill of his fellow citizens that he still enjoys today.

Mr. Obama: please remember that you're just the President. It's a big deal, but it's not that big of a deal. Chester Arthur was President. For goodness sake, Warren Harding was President, and his share of the vote was much larger than yours. Thomas Jefferson's tombstone doesn't even mention his eight years as President. Your current office isn't discussed until Article TWO of the Constitution. Take the hint, and tone it down!

-Jay Cost