The Beltway consensus: the Left is to blame for health care battle

An intense media race is underway to see who will be the Bob Woodward of the Obama White House

Published August 23, 2009 2:24PM (EDT)

(update below)

The prevailing Beltway wisdom has now ossified that the problem with the health care debate is that those hardened Leftist ideologues cling childishly and petulantly to their little "public option" fetish and their refusal to give it up is jeopardizing enactment of a reform bill.  Just see The Washington Post Editorial Page, Post columnist Steve Pearlstein and Joe Klein -- and especially the below-documented behavior from Newsweek's Jonathan Alter -- this week blaming The Left, as always, for their childish extremism in the health care debate.  As always, the obedient servitude of Blue Dogs and "centrists" to the industries that own Congress aren't obstructionist at all.  Somehow, the refusal of Blue Dogs to vote for a plan with a "public option" isn't impeding anything; there's no reason they should give anything up, because they're just being moderate and "centrist."  As always, the way things should be done in Washington is that the proper scorn should be heaped on The Left until they're bullied into giving up what they believe so that Things Can Get Done (i.e., so that corporate dictates can be fulfilled).

All of that is taking place despite this truly remarkable passage from a New York Times article today, which details how Tom Daschle is still exerting a major role in advising Obama on health care even as he maintains his stable of health care industry clients.  Shockingly, Daschle (and now the key Democrats) are advocating the very policy which his industry clients want:  namely, health care reform with mandates, but no "public option" -- only with "co-ops" (article headline: "Daschle Has Ear of White House and Industry"):

But these days it often seems as if Mr. Daschle never left the picture. With unrivaled ties on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, he talks constantly with top White House advisers, many of whom previously worked for him.

He still speaks frequently to the president, who met with him as recently as Friday morning in the Oval Office. And he remains a highly paid policy adviser to hospital, drug, pharmaceutical and other health care industry clients of Alston & Bird, the law and lobbying firm.

Now the White House and Senate Democratic leaders appear to be moving toward a blueprint for overhauling the health system, centered on nonprofit insurance cooperatives, that Mr. Daschle began promoting two months ago as a politically feasible alternative to a more muscular government-run insurance plan.

It is an idea that happens to dovetail with the interests of many Alston & Bird clients, like the insurance giant UnitedHealth and the Tennessee Hospital Association. And it is drawing angry cries of accommodation from more liberal House Democrats bent on including a public insurance plan.

That's wonderful phraseology -- the co-op plan which Daschle is advocating to Obama and which the White House and Senate Democrats are now leaning towards "happens to dovetail with the interests of many [Daschle's] clients, like the insurance giant UnitedHealth and the Tennessee Hospital Association."  What a weird coincidence; it's like those companies won a Bingo game (can you believe our number happened to get called?!? what awesome luck we have). 

That's why there's such fervent demands for a "public option" -- because it's the only thing that can keep costs low and thus prevent this bill from being nothing  more than a glorified bailout of the insurance and drug industries, which is exactly what will happen if 50 million people are forced by law to buy their products with no cost-control mechanism but ample government subsidies.  Yet still, the prevailing Beltway narrative continues to be that it's those loser fringe Leftists who are impeding true reform by demanding a "public option."  Just consider this behavior:

Jonathan Alter, Newsweek, June 20, 2009:

Obama's got good odds of getting some kind of bill this year. But will the country see real reform that both expands coverage and cuts long-term costs? Or will the legislation include lots of necessary but insufficient changes that leave it well short of transformational?  That depends on whether Obama gets approval for a "public option" -- a choice that would allow people to keep their insurance or buy into the same kind of plan offered to members of Congress.

Jonathan Alter, MSNBC, August 19, 2009:

ALTER:  Now there‘s too many other important parts in this bill that are frankly much more important than a public option which I'm totally for. A public option is a means to an end. It's a means to control in cost. . . . The idea that this bill is just toilet paper if there‘s no public option is frankly ridiculous. . . .

SCHULTZ: Liberals wouldn‘t take [a bill without a public option], Jon.

ALTER: Well, they should.

SCHULTZ: They wouldn‘t.

ALTER: They‘re being fools. They‘re being fools. . . . So let‘s be clear about what a public option is. It‘s a detail. . . . Liberals are driving themselves over the cliff if they go. If it‘s public option or bust. It‘s a disaster.

So in a space of two months, Alter went from arguing that "real" and "sufficient" reform "depends on whether Obama gets approval for a 'public option'" -- that's about as clear as it gets:  real reform requires a public option, he argued -- to dismissing the public option as a mere unimportant "detail" that liberals would be "fools" to insist on.  Atrios ponders:  "I Guess Things Change."  Of course, the only thing that changed was this, from August 17:

White House backs off public healthcare option

Obama and officials say it is not 'essential' to the overhaul.

The Obama administration signaled Sunday that it was on the verge of abandoning a government-run insurance option in its healthcare overhaul -- a bow to political reality and a big win for insurers.

Once it became clear that the White House might give up on the public option -- after Obama had previously emphasized it as an indispensable part of his plan -- large numbers of liberal pundits who had never said any such thing before immediately got on board with the White House message and began arguing that there was nothing particularly important about the public option after all.  Did any of them -- a single one -- argue that the public option was unimportant back when it was a central part of the Obama plan and when Obama emphasized health care reform "must" include it?  Not to my knowledge:  it reminds me quite a bit of the torture photo controversy, where not a single liberal pundit criticized Obama when he announced that he would release the photos, but when Obama reversed himself and announced he would keep them concealed, huge numbers of Obama supporters leapt forward to argue that concealing the photos was the right thing to do.  If they really believe that concealing the photos is the right thing to do, why didn't they join in with the Right and criticize Obama when he originally announced he'd release them?  If the public option is unimportant, why didn't they criticize Obama for insisting upon it as part of a health care reform package?

In Alter's case, he not only got dutifully on board with the White House message, but did so by completely reversing what he had said previously.  Of course, there's also this:

Not long ago Media Mob reported that The Washington Post’s David Maraniss is in talks with Simon & Schuster about writing a book on President-elect Barack Obama. Now comes word that Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter is, too. . . .

Speaking from his phone in Chicago, Mr. Alter said he plans to write about the Obama administration the way one might write about an internet start-up company. He said he wants to write about "what happens when an irresistible force meets an immoveable object in the form of Washington, D.C. and the status quo,” and predicted that the theme would be "the reality of hope."

There's an intense race underway to see who will be crowned the Bob Woodward of the Obama administration -- the sycophantic media pet who will be given access and scoops in exchange for as acting as subservient water-carrier for the White House.  In that stomach-crawling race, Alter is currently well behind Ryan Lizza (who penned one of the most reverent profiles ever, of Rahm Emanuel in The New Yorker, after being paid in the mid- six-figure range to write a book on the Obama White House that requires much access), and Richard Wolffe (who already parlayed favorable Newsweek coverage of Obama into great access that enabled him to write one Obama-adoring book about the campaign, and is now trying to sell that access to write a second worshipful book about the Obama presidency).  But Alter seems determined to make a dramatic comeback as he attacks the "liberal fools" for advocating a policy that Alter himself, just two months ago, argued was vital for there to be any meaningful health care reform.  As always, everyone in Washington seems to agree that if only the Leftist crazies would stay quiet and give up on their radical ideology, everything would go smoothly.  And, in a sense, they're right.


UPDATE:  The generally centrist/conservative Denver Post (endorsed Bush in 2004, Romney and Clinton in the 2008 primary, and Obama over McCain) has an Editorial today making a strong case as to why reform without a public option is meaningless, if not counter-productive (h/t David Sirota).

To clarify:  I'm not advocating for health care reform per se, only that:  (a) reform without a public option (particularly with mandates) is nothing but a gigantic gift to the health insurance industry (and a huge gift to the drug industry without price negotiation) and (b) it's vital to change the power dynamic in Washington -- change which parties win -- and if the health care debate is the place to do that, so be it.

By Glenn Greenwald

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