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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Health Care Pushmi-Pullyu

The big news today on the health care reform front is a much-publicized rebuke delivered by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus:

According to Democratic sources, Reid told Baucus that taxing health benefits and failing to include a strong government-run insurance option of some sort in his bill would cost 10 to 15 Democratic votes; Reid told Baucus it wasn’t worth securing the support of Grassley and at best a few additional Republicans.

This was music to the ears of progressives who have been fretting for months that Baucus was going to crucially water down health care reform in the vain pursuit of bipartisanship. And more specifically, since Reid mentioned the risk of Democratic defections, the ukase is being cited as the first fruits of a “Progressive Block” strategy outlined recently by Chris Bowers, wherein supporters of a strong public option in health care reform would outflank “centrists” with a credible threat to take down the legislation entirely.
But in the rush by some observers to happily bury health care bipartisanship entirely, other possible motives for Reid’s tactic may be missed. As Jon Cohn notes today at TNR, Reid may simply be signalling to Republicans that they are exacting too high a price for their support:

As it happens, Reid’s tough talk could (that’s “could,” not “will”) end up making a bipartisan bill more likely. The more that Republicans believe Democrats are wliling to pass reform on their own–either by maintaining enough party discipline to break a filibuster or by trying to use the budget reconciliation process, in which legislation can pass with a simple majority vote–the more likely Republicans are to compromise. It’s possible Reid’s show of pique could actually strengthen Baucus’s hand for dealing with Grassley, while also strengthening the hand of those on the right–be they individual lawmakers or special interest groups–who would prefer a modestly unacceptable bill to one they really hate.

If Cohn’s speculation is correct, then this may not be a simple morality tale in which progressives finally start emulating Republicans by showing some spine (a favorite injunction in the progressive blogosphere), and roll on to victory, but a more complex dynamic involving pushes and pulls aimed at various factions in both parties. In particular, those who view the progress of health care reform as purely a matter of “spine” or “strength” should remember that public opinion is a big factor in all these senatorial calculations. It’s noteworthy that Reid called not only for preservation of the public option, but for stopping all the talk of paying for health care reform by taxing some portion of employer-sponsored health care benefits, which many progressives (though typically not those in the labor movement) strongly support. The public option is popular; taxing benefits is not.
It’s clear (as Cohn also notes today) that taking the benefit tax option off the table is going to complicate the process of “paying for” and hence enacting health care reform. But it also removes yet another stick-in-the-eye to Republicans, who can’t forget that the Obama-Biden campaign savaged John McCain for proposing elimination of the tax benefit (albeit in the pursuit of very different health care policies that can hardly be described as “reforms”).
So who knows exactly what Reid is up to or where the process will go next? I’m not sure even he knows, but one thing is for sure: progressive “strength” is best exerted in concert with public opinion, and in the service of a workable strategy.

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