Dr. Obama's prescription

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 23, 2010; 10:14 AM

Thirteen months after taking office, Barack Obama has finally told us precisely what he wants in a health-care bill.

I can't help but think he'd be in better shape if he had done this a long, long time ago.

If you step back and look at this strange situation, both the House and the Senate have passed their versions of Obamacare, and yet it's not exactly close to becoming law. Letting the Hill barons write the bills turns out to have been a disastrous strategy for the White House, particularly as folks saw the dealmaking that the president admits was part of an "ugly process."

Health care seemed comatose after Scott Brown cut the Democrats' Senate majority to 59, and the D's were all about pivoting to a jobs bill. I wondered whether there would be a serious effort to revive the measure, which increasingly seemed like a political loser.

But then the Democrats were left to contemplate the core administration argument: You've already taken the tough vote. The Republicans are already going to use health care against you. If we pass something, you can talk up the benefits to voters. If it dies, all we've shown is that we can't govern.

So the president has now posted his preferences in advance of Thursday's health-care summit, which he hopes will either spotlight the GOP's less-than-comprehensive health-care proposals or lack thereof.

On that point, how many people know that Republican Rep. Paul Ryan is proposing to turn Medicare into a voucher program for everyone who is now under 55? Regardless of the idea's merits, don't you think that would be rather controversial? The media give the minority far less attention, but also far less scrutiny.

Doing nothing is also a valid alternative, if Republicans believe Obamacare is that bad. But then they should be prepared to defend the status quo, and journalists haven't really pressed them on that.

At first glance, what's striking about the Obama Web proposal is the political buzz phrases. He's no longer just lowering premiums, he's providing "the largest middle class tax cut for health care in history." He's not just offering some vaguely defined exchanges, he's setting up a "new competitive health insurance market," along with "greater accountability." He's not just barring insurance companies from rejecting those with preexisting conditions, he will "end discrimination against Americans."

The headline-grabber, which was leaked to reporters Sunday night, is boosting federal regulation to control insurance premium increases that are seen as unfair. This is doubling down on big government, which the GOP was quick to slam as a "massive government takeover." On the other hand, do Republicans want to be seen as backing insurance companies that keep performing surgery on patients' wallets?

Obama's plan offers no public option, which couldn't even pass the Senate when the Dems had 60. Obama also caves a bit on the Cadillac tax, despised by unions, by raising the level at which it kicks in.

Maybe this can kick-start the president's health-care drive. But it's awfully late in the game.

"President Obama began what may be his final push to win enactment of a health care overhaul, laying out a legislative blueprint on Monday that seeks to unify House and Senate Democrats but makes no big new concessions to Republicans," says the New York Times.

"Mr. Obama's plan, which the White House said would cost $950 billion over a decade, sticks largely to the version passed by the Senate in December but addresses some of the main concerns of House leaders who are demanding more help for the middle class. . . .

"The Congressional math is daunting for the administration. Mr. Obama has lost the 60-vote supermajority that allowed him to win passage of a bill in the Senate, which means he would either have to attract Republican support or push the bill through with a simple majority using the complex parliamentary maneuver known as reconciliation -- a route that the White House pointedly did not rule out on Monday."

L.A. Times: "In an 11th-hour bid to rally Democrats behind a sweeping healthcare overhaul, President Obama offered his own detailed plan Monday that would expand coverage, tighten regulation of the insurance industry and seek greater efficiencies in the nation's medical system. . . .

"In unveiling the plan, the White House also challenged GOP leaders to offer an alternative. But with Republicans firmly against any major healthcare legislation, the president's primary task is unifying House and Senate Democrats."

Washington Times: "Democrats embraced the sweeping plan, which seeks to shore up popular support by tackling hefty insurance premium increases and extending coverage to 31 million Americans.

"Republicans immediately rejected it, backed up by public polls that show the majority of Americans want Congress to start over on health care reform and work together."

The left doesn't much like it. The Nation's John Nichols leads his post this way: "The real news is what it does not do.

"Despite urging from House leaders and a growing number of senators, 'The President's Plan' does not include a public option. Nor does it bow in any meaningful way to progressive proposals to expand access to Medicare and Medicaid.

"In other words, the president has opted for the Senate's exceptionally compromised approach, rather than the bolder bill produced by the House."

Same goes for Firedoglake: "The White House keeps blaming messaging because they are too ego-driven to admit that they made a bad product. They are trying to keep the currently very unpopular Senate bill as unchanged as possible, which is a big mistake. This shows a tone deafness to the American people who've said that they don't like this bill as it now is."

The right doesn't much like it. The Weekly Standard's Matthew Continetti sees these deficiencies:

"Obama's new, improved plan is more expensive than the Senate bill, does not address the concerns of pro-life House Democrats over the Senate's abortion language, maintains the tax exemption for the Democrats' union friends, and will effectively turn insurance companies into heavily regulated public utilities. . . .

"Nancy Pelosi has to find 218 members to sign on to a bill the public dislikes. She was having trouble before Rep. Cao, Republican of Louisiana, said he would not vote for Obamacare again; before Rep. Wexler, Democrat of Florida, retired; and before Rep. Murtha, Democrat of Pennsylvania, died. Rep. Abercrombie, Democrat of Hawaii, is set to resign his seat at the end of the month as he campaigns for governor. What makes us think Pelosi will have an easier time with Obama's bill?"

Says Time's Kate Pickert: "Democrats are still miles from the finish line. House Democrats are not eager to pass the Senate bill and Republicans have promised to obstruct a reconciliation bill in the Senate."

Will Thursday's get-together find common ground? The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn isn't optimistic:

"The Republican Party has no moderates anymore -- or, at least, it has no moderates willing to vote that way. And so while I suspect Obama would (to my chagrin) embrace a scaled-down plan if a group of moderate Republicans offered one, my bet is that the Republicans do nothing of the sort. They're insisting that Obama and the Democrats start over -- that they scrap the current plan and begin negotiations new.

"Not only would that be bad policy; that would be bad politics. Both the president and his allies, I think, know that. That means it will be up to the Democrats -- and the Democrats alone -- to decide whether reform lives or dies. . . .

"Will Democrats, particularly in the House, get past their fear and vote for the bill? Really that's what the summit is all about -- convincing nervous Democrats that the Republicans really aren't interested in compromise and that health care reform, despite the poll numbers, is still a good idea."

In his WP column, E.J. Dionne focuses on GOP intransigence, but he has another target in mind:

"I don't blame the Republicans for any of this. They have a right to be as conservative as they want. They have both substantive and political reasons for blocking health-care reform. So far, the strategy has worked. Why should they do anything differently?

"But I do blame those who pretend to be nonpartisan or 'objective' for falling for this ploy.

"And that's whose bluff Obama is really calling with this summit. He's saying: Please, establishment media, look honestly at what the Republicans are doing. Instead of offering lectures about bipartisanship or nostalgia for some peaceable Washington kingdom, look at the substance of our respective proposals and how they match up against the problems we're trying to solve."

That would change the playing field. The Democratic plans have been well covered, but I doubt one American in 100 could tell me what the Republican alternative is.

Beck and the right

Glenn Beck took some whacks at the Republicans in his CPAC speech over the weekend, and that didn't sit well with Bill Bennett:

"For him to continue to say that he does not hear the Republican party admit its failings or problems is to ignore some of the loudest and brightest lights in the party. From Jim DeMint to Tom Coburn to Mike Pence to Paul Ryan, any number of Republicans have admitted the excesses of the party and done constructive and serious work to correct them and find and promote solutions. Even John McCain has said again and again that 'the Republican party lost its way.' . . .

"Does Glenn truly believe there is no difference between a Tom Coburn, for example, and a Harry Reid or a Charles Schumer or a Barbara Boxer? Between a Paul Ryan or Michele Bachmann and a Nancy Pelosi or Barney Frank?. . . .

"To admit it is still 'morning in America' but a 'vomiting for four hours' kind of morning is to diminish, discourage, and disparage all the work of the conservative, Republican, and independent resistance of the past year."

Guess the former Reaganite doesn't like to see any tampering with the Gipper's 1984 campaign slogan.

Charity falls short

I'm often asked in online chats why The Post doesn't allow people to make donations to support its (free) Web site. Apparently that doesn't work so well: "The Miami Herald Media Co. has discontinued a voluntary payment program supporting its online editorial content." An executive "would not say how much money the effort had raised."

Scientology vs. newspapers

My column yesterday on the Church of Scientology hiring three veteran investigative journalists to scrutinize the St. Petersburg Times' coverage of the church has caused a few ripples. One of the journalists, Steve Weinberg, a former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, likened his editing of the study to work he's done for Columbia Journalism Review. Times columnist Eric Deggans found Weinberg taking a more jaundiced view on True/Slant in November:

"Recently, an experienced investigative journalist who has found it difficult to conduct his work because of the economic downturn asked me if he should apply for the Scientologists' opening. I told him no, even though I like to see superb investigative reporting no matter who is funding it. More than any other existing organization that comes to mind, the Scientologists have been so hostile to outside journalists that I cannot see crossing the line to accept employment there."

CJR Executive Editor Mike Hoyt, noting that "Weinberg is a longtime writer for and friend of the Columbia Journalism Review," says: "The quality of this effort is not the point as much as the fact of this effort -- hiring on to help an entity notorious for bringing terrible pressure on any journalist who dares to examine it. While the pay is likely meaningful to the journalists, and we know that times are hard, it is chump change to the Church. The Church can essentially gamble that these veteran journalists will find something of value that it can use as a weapon against the Times.

"That's not a transaction we'd take part in, and we're sorry Steve invoked our name."

Reporter returns

After a 40-day stint at a PAC for Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, former Politico reporter Jonathan Allen is going back to the newsroom:

"I didn't take long for me to figure out that partisan politics wasn't the right fit for me. I'm not a rah-rah guy. I like to point out inconsistencies. Like the annoying kid in fourth grade, I want to share all the information I have all the time. I hate going to meetings -- particularly if I have to stand inside the doors.

"From the outset, I felt like I was a reporter just masquerading as a political operative.

"Now, as I leave my job at Wasserman Schultz's political action committee to make the transition back to journalism at POLITICO, there will be some who wonder whether I am a political operative just masquerading as a reporter. . . .

"A reporter's personal views don't matter -- can't matter -- if he is to do his job. Doctors don't choose which patients to heal. Soldiers don't fight only in wars they think are just."

In an accompanying piece, Editor in Chief John Harris describes Allen as "ambitious, curious, contrarian and headstrong," and says he had reservations about taking him back:

"I am enough of a traditionalist to be wary of the revolving door between politics and journalism. And it seemed likely that Allen's brief tenure with a Democrat might open us to shots at our fairness by Republicans. I viewed this as a matter of perception, not of reality.

"People here went back and forth. [Jim] VandeHei and Mike Allen -- a bit surprisingly, given their views on the voting question -- argued strongly that Allen should come back home. . . .

"Other people -- Managing Editor Bill Nichols and Deputy Managing Editor Tim Grieve and I -- weren't so sure. Journalism has enough difficulty preserving its reputation without giving people reason to question journalists' intentions. In the end, those of us with misgivings either overcame or swallowed them."

While television has practically obliterated the line between party insiders and pundits, I do think Republicans -- and Politico readers -- might be wary of someone who was so recently in the employ of a Democrat. But I give Allen and Politico major points for transparency.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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