If you love Medicare, why don't you marry it?

Sure there's a lot of media idiocy about healthcare, but Obama has to take some of the blame for the confusion

Published September 2, 2009 10:20AM (EDT)

I've been hoping to see more organizing on behalf of healthcare reform, but I was slightly put off by Mitch Stewart's Organizing for America's fundraising letter Tuesday, asking for help to combat media laziness and lies about Obama's signature issue. Don't get me wrong: I'm happy to see signs of life in Organizing for America, the post-election incarnation of Obama for America, an organization that many Obama supporters hoped would give the president a way to mobilize his base on behalf of key policy goals.

And there's plenty of poor media behavior to fight. Right after I read Stewart's letter, I saw the mother of all idiotic performances, when CNBC's Maria Bartiromo shamed herself by asking public-option champion Rep. Anthony Weiner "if Medicare's so good, why aren't you on it?" and the 44-year-old Democrat had to school the professional financial journalist in the basic facts of the program: that you can't enroll until you're 65. (Reports that Bartiromo then followed up with: "If you love Medicare so much, then why don't you marry it?" could not be confirmed at press time.)

But if I'd been an Obama donor (I didn't donate to anyone last time around) I'd be irritated by a request for money to combat media lies about Obama's healthcare reform plans. For one thing, the lies took hold at least partly because reform foes have been more organized that reform supporters, including OFA. But I also found myself rephrasing a familiar gripe: How can Obama ask his supporters to rise up and fight for him when he hasn't defined what they're fighting for? In a CBS News poll this week, 69 percent of Republicans said they were confused about what's being proposed -- but even more disturbing, given that their party controls the White House and both houses of Congress -- 58 percent of Democrats said they were confused, too.

Of course, if you go to the OFA Health Care Action Center you'll see three clear principles they say guide Obama's reforms -- and the one promoting healthcare "choices" specifies that consumers must be able to choose a public insurance option. But that's the choice that most mainstream pundits say Obama must be prepared to give up (and many believe he is). MSNBC's Chuck Todd said today that the Senate Finance Committee's version of healthcare reform is the one that Obama will back, and it almost certainly won't include a public option. Todd may well be wrong, but the chattering class certainty that the public option is dead and compromise is the only way to get a deal is hardening into received wisdom -- and setting up Obama for a fall.

Also Tuesday Mark Ambinder published his take on what will happen when Congress returns next week, and it's only slightly reassuring:

He plans to list specific goals that any health insurance reform plan that arrives at his desk must achieve, according to Democratic strategists familiar with the plan. Some of these "goals" have already been agreed to, including new anti-discrimination restrictions on insurance companies. Others will be new, including the level of subsidies he expects to give the uninsured so they can buy into the system.

Obama will also specify a "pay for" mechanism he prefers, and will specify an income level below which he does not want to see taxed.

...[B]ut he will remain agnostic about whether the plan must include a robust public option.

I'm glad Obama is belatedly realizing what I wrote six weeks ago: He needs to give his supporters real specifics they can rally behind. But if I'd been one of Obama's legendary small donors, I'd tell Mitch Stewart that he won't get another dime from me until the president comes out swinging in September for the kind of reform he promised on the campaign trail back when he was raking in all that dough -- and for me, that includes a robust public option. Sadly, it seems that small donors can't compete with the largesse of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, who are the ones trying to smear the public option as a Marxist plot. I'm proud of two recent Salon pieces that helped explain the impasse on the healthcare issue: Ed Kilgore decoding the racial politics around help for the "undeserving" poor in "The Return of the Welfare Queen" (right on cue, Glenn Beck started ranting about healthcare reform as "reparations" again today); and Michael Lind decrying the "demagogy gap" that's left Democrats flat-footed on the issue. (Robert Reich is great on that point too.)

Lind's piece features the speech he'd like to see Obama give when he returns to action. I wish  Lind or Reich were writing Obama's speeches. Meanwhile, I hope Organizing for America succeeds in galvanizing weak Democratic politicians to stand up for real healthcare reform; they're organizing events to send Democrats back to Washington with the right message, all over the country. (There's one in San Francisco to send back our reliably liberal local delegation on Wednesday; you can check the site for one near you.) I just hope they'll get that message to the guy who founded the group, because he sounded a hell of a lot tougher last summer than he has this one. 

By Joan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Healthcare Reform