Time for Plan B?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 4, 2009; 8:51 AM

With the flap over the Cash for Clunkers program, the media-political establishment is questioning whether the president's health-care plan is a clunker as well.

The opposition -- including a very screechy woman who confronted Kathleen Sebelius at a town hall meeting -- is asking how the administration can remake one-sixth of the economy if it can't handle a used-car program.

That's unfair, but it gets at the unease over Obama's ambitious health-care prescriptions.

I may be in the minority, but how can the administration declare the clunkers program a success when a billion-dollar effort that was supposed to last till November ran out of money in five days? Isn't that a pretty spectacular miscalculation?

Also, isn't it apparent that the $4,500 payments for older gas-guzzlers was extremely generous? That's a huge chunk of change to spur people who probably would have bought a new car eventually anyway. It's a nice short-term boost for the auto industry, and a small boost for fuel efficiency, but is it worth the additional $2 billion that the Senate seems inclined to join the House in approving? Does it further the impression that the administration is just shoveling money out the door?

There was no single day when the Gang of 500 got together and declared health care to be in trouble, but the White House is clearly on the defensive as Congress decamps for August. In retrospect, Obama failed to focus sufficient attention on the what's-in-it-for-me question for the majority of Americans with insurance. Given the sweep and complexity of the proposals, many folks are skeptical of Obama's assurances that their coverage will remain unchanged. And with a 1,000-page bill that the Democrats haven't figured out how to pay for, the whole thing is vulnerable to attacks and distortions, on lots of sections and sub-sections.

The media debate has now moved to Obama's backup plan, proof positive that the pundits -- who are never wrong, of course -- are writing off his original proposal.

The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn: Obama let the Hill process spin out of control:

"On Sunday, Ceci Connolly of the Washington Post reported that administration officials have changed their rhetoric -- and that some now talk, quietly, of putting the country on a 'glide path' to universal coverage rather than achieving it in the next few years. This is an important development although not an unexpected one. The White House and its allies plan for all contingencies. There has always been a 'Plan B' in case the support for full coverage, along with comprehensive reform, wasn't there. And there have always been key players -- both in the White House and Congress -- who have thought maybe 'Plan B' should be 'Plan A.' After a rough few weeks, when the president's poll ratings began to slip and the opponents of reform managed to gum up the works in Congress, such an outcome seems increasingly likely.

"We have a pretty good idea of what that would mean, in terms of policy. Leaks out of the Finance Committee suggest that, absent support for a program with all of the funding and regulation reform needs, legislation would be far from ideal. It'd mean less financial assistance both for people who don't have insurance and those who now struggle to pay for it. It'd mean less financial protection for people who get sick. It'd mean less choice for people who want a range of options, including a public insurance plan, from which to choose . . .

"Lately, there's been a lot of Monday Morning Quarterbacking of how the Democratic Party leadership, and Obama in particular, have handled the reform debate. As the new conventional wisdom goes, the president got too wonky and gave Congress too much leeway. For the record, I agree with most of that. (In fact, I think I wrote something to that effect once or twice in the last few weeks myself.) And I was pleased to see the White House shift its messaging just in the last few days, to focus more on the tangible benefits -- the 'goodies' -- that reform would offer every American. (More on those shortly.)

"But let's not kid ourselves about why health reform has suddenly hit a rough patch. This was always going to be difficult. No strategic genius can overcome the fact that our political system is hostile to change, particularly liberal change, given both the power of money in politics and the small-state, conservative weighting of the Senate."

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