What a difference a Massachusetts special election can make, eh? Now President Obama is telling Democratic leadership not to jam a health care bill through Congress.
Sadly but no longer unsurprisingly, this doesn't signal the opening salvo in a re-calibrated battle plan to enlist public support for a new health reform bill with the teeth sharp enough to take a big bite out of health insurance industry prices, profits and practices run amok.
No, quite the opposite, in fact. The President and Democratic leadership seem to be doing the
tail between the legs thing, running scared, cherry-picking a few regulatory reforms they think might still gain passage.
Of all the lessons to learn from the Massachusetts slap-down, the one that might actually turn the tide for the National Democratic brand is: You can't talk the talk of reform without a bold willingness to also walk the walk.
As the Obama administration, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and all the other usual suspects do their finger-pointing damage control on Massachusetts and talk about moving forward on health reform, one gets the feeling not only that they live in an out of touch, insulated echo chamber of a beltway bubble, but also that they're so frightened of failure they've forgotten what winning strategy is all about.
While affordability is supposed to be one of the three linchpins of effective health reform (access and accountability being the other two in the words of Pelosi), you may have noticed that for months most of the White House and Democratic leadership chatter about cost has revolved around the cost of the legislation itself, and how to pay for it - not around any concerted effort to force insurance companies to lower their costs, limit their profits and pass along the savings to consumers in the form of reduced premiums.
I'm no genius, but it seems like simple, winning political strategy - and the highest standard of public policy - to make the gut-level issue of reducing the crushing costs of health insurance for millions of struggling individuals, working families and small businesses the absolute do-or-die focus of any legislative health care reform legislation.
Of course, Democratic leadership would explain that they're doing just that by offering generous subsidies to those who can't afford to pay the outrageous prices charged by private, for-profit insurers. Never mind that these subsidies also add to the cost of the bill, helping offset any savings the bill may generate through Medicare cuts and other measures. Never mind that this approach only addresses people's ability to afford the crazy cost of insurance, not the cost itself.
Now that he appears to have discarded the idea of getting a truly transformational health reform bill through Congress, the President's newest call to "action" seems to revolve around trying to gain passage of things like higher subsidies, eliminating coverage barriers for people with pre-existing conditions, and giving people "portability" of coverage when they change jobs. These are not insignificant reforms, and they'll help many people - but they do nothing about lowering the cost of health insurance, and if done outside a broader reform context, they could easily end up raising costs for millions.
Here are a few obvious ways - without a public option health plan - and even without a complete health care bill, Mr. President - of forcing competition and real cost reduction onto the out-of-control health insurance industry.
- Bust their monopolies by repealing their anti-trust exemption
Don't let individual states overrun with insurance lobbyists and money to have primary regulatory oversight of the industry
- Make insurance companies spend more of every premium dollar on actual medical care
Makes you wonder why the Obama team and the Democratic leadership team were together quite content to dither away so many months standing on the sidelines of the debate about a public option - knowing this would let evil spin doctoring about government takeovers and death panels gain steam - instead on focusing on those three game-changing insurance industry reforms and rallying populist sentiment around them.
Hmmm, think that maybe more than a few in the ranks of the Democratic leadership are a little too concerned with maintaining the flow of insurance company money into their political action committees and campaign coffers?
By now, most voters of every affiliation from all over the country have seen through this cynical, cowardly con game. Think that could be one of the reasons that public support for health reform has plummeted? A correlated con game is the Democratic cover story that this trend is all about the well-heeled opposition campaign to make this "landmark" legislative effort dead on arrival.
Yeah, right. If only it had been a landmark legislative effort - If only it could be.
If someone in the highest ranks of Democratic leadership doesn't know enough to now pull the emergency brake on this train wreck of a health reform effort, admit their original miscalculations and tactical errors to the public, and seize the moment to resurrect their brand by leading a real health reform effort, than the election of Republican Scott Brown to succeed Democratic legend Ted Kennedy is no doubt only the beginning of a disastrous election year - not only for the Democratic brand, but also for the American one.