Could We Have A Quasi-Parliamentary System...If We Wanted It?

>> Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Longtime readers will know that I believe that the president's role in passing new domestic initiatives (as opposed to applying existing regulations or putting issues on the agenda) is an essentially subordinate one, and those who think that a ruthless president with partisan control of Congress can get what he wants need to (for starters) explain Bush and Social Security. My take on Obama and health care, roughly is:

  • My guess is that, if we had a parliamentary system, or even a separation-of-powers system without an anachronistic Senate, at a minimum the health care plan would have a public option, with Obama's support.
  • On the other hand, for obvious political as well as ideological reasons, Obama wants a health care reform to pass in a timely manner, and thinks that the current deal is about as good as he can get. Here, I agree with Obama's progressive critics that he's OK with the bill as it now stands even if he would support a better one.
  • I think Obama's analysis of the political situation is correct; nothing he could do could assemble enough reactionary moving parts among Lieberman, Nelson, Snowe, et al. to get a public option as part of the bill.
Whether Obama deserves primary responsibility for the failure of health care reform to include a major public check (whether a Medicare buy-in or robust public option) depends largely on whether you think I'm right on point #3, which Glenn Greenwald doesn't. But while I don't disagree with all of his criticisms of Obama, I simply don't think he has the goods. The fact that the President can strong-arm some freshman House members (and perhaps one Senator coming up for re-election) simply doesn't constitute good evidence that he has significant leverage against the number of senators that would be needed to come aboard, particularly given the number of them who come from states where Obama isn't popular, a more liberal Democrat isn't viable, and/or aren't up for re-election in 2010.

Even more tendentious, however, is the fact that he takes Russ Feingold's claim that "This bill appears to be legislation that the president wanted in the first place" at face value. As I think Glenn would recognize in most other contexts, bare assertions made by obviously self-interested parties don't constitute reliable evidence. As Armando -- who is much close to Greenwald's position on Obama's power here than mine -- points out, given that Feingold has made his opposition to using reconciliation to pass a better health care bill clear, he's not in a very good position to criticize anyone else's strategic choices. The supermajority requirements in the Senate are the single biggest obstacle to getting a good bill passed, and the fact that even some progressive Senators aren't willing to challenge them has crucially undermined the final bill, in a much more concrete way than Obama's excessive moderation and strategic mistakes. (I'd be much more receptive to claims that Obama not being sufficiently cutthroat is the key factor if the marginal votes he needed were in the center of the Senate rather than the tenth seat to the right.)

It's hard to know how to apportion responsibility exactly -- separation-of-powers systems tend to nullify accountability, and we can't trust the accounts of either senators or the White House about what's going on. But I certainly haven't heard a plausible account of how even a more liberal White House could magically get 60 votes for a bill with a robust public option in the Senate.

...Let's not forget Baucus and the Gang of 6, either.


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