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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

With Expectations Duly Lowered….

The “expectations game” is important in politics not just in terms of polls and elections, but also public policy. We’re seeing an excellent example of the power of lowered expectations on the health care front this week.
As noted here yesterday, higher-than-expected CBO cost estimates of draft Senate plans created a bit of a panic among health reform advocates, with gloom-and-doom sentiments enjoying a sudden bull market. So when the Senate Finance Committee leaked a “revised” draft plan to WaPo’s Ezra Klein late yesterday, the reaction was a lot more muted than you might normally expect. The new draft scales down subsidies, ramps up an individual mandate, deploys purchasing cooperatives rather than a public plan, and doesn’t touch the tax exclusion for employer-provided benefits–all decisions that might have produced a major progressive backlash a week ago.
Not so much today. Sure, there’s plenty of unhappiness in the blogosphere. Digby had a succinct reaction:

It’s a good day to be an insurance company CEO. An mandate from the government forcing people to buy your product and no serious competition from anybody but your monopolistic buddies in the industry, all of whom look after each other very, very well.

At Open Left, which has been conducting an aggressive campaign in favor of a strong public plan, the Finance draft produced more of a sigh than a shout:

[E]ven if we can find cost savings, the Senate says it’s too expensive to provide a public healthcare option. Rural Democrats have in many cases sided with the health insurers on this one, in spite of the fact that the small business and self employment base of the rural economy faces significant healthcare infrastructure hurdles.
It’s shameful the way these legislators have completely abandoned their constituents. Who acts like this?
Stand with Dr. Dean and ask your representatives where they stand on a public option.

Then there Ezra Klein, who visibly struggles with himself to characterize the draft plan–finally settling on the term “comprehensive incrementalism”–and then offers this glass-half-full assessment:

It is one of the paradoxes of the legislative process that something that is substantively quite timid can also be quite bold. This version of health reform is far from what the country needs. It is far from what any health-care experts would develop left to their own devices. But it is still a monumental initiative and, if passed, it would be the most significant step forward since the creation of Medicare and Medicaid.

Both Ezra and Matt Yglesias also fell back on hopes that are the legislative equivalent of the halftime locker-room cry: “We’ll get ’em in the fourth quarter:” Here’s Matt:

[T]he cost savings implied by a robust public plan would do a lot to resolve some of the financial issues that are making it difficult for Finance to offer coverage that’s as generous as they initially intended. Thus far, unfortunately, cost conscious centrist senators haven’t tended to look at the public plan in that light. But since any legislation will go through several rounds of ping-pong with more liberal outfits—HELP Committee, the House of Representatives—I hope there’s still some time to turn their thinking around.

Indeed: House Democrats could unveil an outline of their own health care proposal as early as today. It will be most interesting to see if it changes the dynamics of a health care debate that’s gotten quickly bogged down in the Senate. And then the President, who has been relatively quiet about congressional developments on health care, will need to decide when and how to weigh in.
UPDATE: Here’s Jonathan Cohn’s initial and optimistic take on what’s coming out of the House committees.

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