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Post Politics: Single Payer, Dancin' Tom DeLay, More

Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 18, 2009 11:00 AM

Discuss the latest news about the Obama administration and the world of politics with Ben Pershing, who writes the daily Rundown for The Post's Political Browser. Pershing was online Aug. 18 at 11 a.m. ET.

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Ben Pershing: Good morning, everyone. Given that it's August and Congress is out of town, there's been quite a bit of news lately, particularly on health care. Let's talk about that and whatever else is on your minds.

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Philadelphia: Why are Obama's declining poll numbers only construed as people being against how "liberal" his reforms are? What about the people like me, and basically everyone I know, who have a declining view of him because his reforms are not liberal enough? I would estimate at least 10 percent of the decline is from people on the left side and giving up the public option is only increasing that number. We may not have any other viable options on the left, but that doesn't mean that disappointing everyone is a wise course.

Ben Pershing: That's a good point. There certainly is a vocal minority of voters who believe Obama isn't liberal enough, particularly on health care. You see them fairly often at town hall meetings, advocating for a single-payer system. I think most polls account for that fact, and combine unhappy liberals with unhappy conservatives to produce a lump sum of people who are unhappy with the president for one reason or another. And Obama and Democratic leaders have had to work to appease liberals in Congress who feel the same way as you do. But the bottom line is that getting a bill signed into law requires following a path down the middle. Simply winning liberal votes doesn't get you a majority in the House or the Senate.

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Atlanta, GA: I get why reform is needed, but tell me this: Why should I support ANY reform proposal that doesn't require members of Congress to participate? If it's good for the goose, isn't it good for the gander?

Ben Pershing: There are bills in both the House and Senate requiring members of Congress to enroll in the "public option" plan. But now it looks unlikely that whatever bill becomes law will actually have a public option, so it's a moot point. Under all the plans currently under consideration, people who currently get insurance through their employers - like members of Congress - will supposedly continue to do so after reform is passed. So lawmakers' insurance probably won't change.

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San Diego: Do you think that if Kelly Osbourne and Tom Delay make it to the finals of "Dancing with the Stars," somehow the apocalypse will be triggered and life as we know it will end, thereby rendering any health care reform completely moot?

Ben Pershing: That's entirely possible. Watch for strange shifts in ocean currents during their performances. Also look to see if dogs start behaving oddly. Dogs always know when the apocalypse is coming.

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Little Rock, Ark.: Possibly the most intriguing contest in 2010 (at this point) looks to be the Democratic primary pitting Arlen Specter vs. Rep. Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania for Specter's Senate seat.

How's this likely to pan out? Did Specter make the right move in switching parties? Do Democrats in Penn. trust him? Do these town halls make him an endearing figure to Democrats currently leery of his cred? What big events between now and then will shape this one?

washingtonpost.com: The Keystone Candidacy

Ben Pershing: I can only assume you read Phil Rucker's fine dispatch from Pennsylvania, which is linked above. It's tough to say whether Specter made the right move by switching parties, but as much trouble as he's having now, you have to remember that his chances of winning the Republican primary were looking pretty dire. So his path to reelection now actually looks better than it did before he switched. He still might lose, but he probably increased his chances.

As for major events to come, obviously the health-care vote will be a big one. And if the Senate ever votes on the Employee Free Choice Act -- the "card check" bill -- it will be fascinating to see how Specter handles it.

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New York City: Although the former GOP whip may have more important things on this mind these days, whatever happened to the charges brought by Ronnie Earl against Tom DeLay? Are they still pending or were they thrown out?

Ben Pershing: Technically some of the charges are still pending (others have been thrown out). But there has been no actvity in the case since last year and Ronnie Earle, the Travis County DA who first brought the case against DeLay, retired in January.

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Prescott, Ariz.: What incentives do Republicans have to pass a good health care bill? I keep trying to figure out what it would get them (from a political standpoint), and I can't see it bringing them anything positive.

As I see it, here are the three outcomes from the best for the GOP to the worst:

1. No healthcare bill because process blows up.

2. Terrible bill that wastes money and is blamed on Dems.

3. Good bill that looks like victory for Dems.

Ben Pershing: The cynical view is that there is no incentive for Republicans to support any bill that Obama supports. In theory, if the final bill is really "good" and popular, then Republicans could be punished for opposing it. But there's almost no way we'll know whether health-care reform has been effective or ineffective by November 2010. So it's a better short-term bet for the GOP to simply oppose everything. They could draft their own detailed proposal, but it has no chance of becoming law, so why bother putting something out that could be picked apart?

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Re: Philadelphia's Question: The declining poll numbers could also be non-partisan. My concern is not that he's too liberal or not liberal enough, it's a matter of competence. My concern is that he's made the classic rookie error and has simply bitten off way more than he can chew. It was the same reason I nearly supported for McCain (until he picked Palin and eliminated the experience advantage).

Ben Pershing: That's true -- there are voters out there who generally like Obama's goals but believe he's done a poor job trying to achieve them. Other than the economic stimulus bill, Obama hasn't been able to deliver yet on many of his campaign promises: health care, climate change, closing Guantanamo, etc. Of course we're only in the first year of Obama's presidency, but if his list of accomplishments isn't much longer by this time next year, Democrats will have a tough time at the polls.

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Blue Dogs Neutered?: I just read that 65 liberal members of the House have stated that they will vote against any bill that does not include a public option. How does that affect the chances of the public option? Doesn't it neuter those few "Blue Dog" Democrats?

Ben Pershing: No, it doesn't really "neuter" them. The expectation right now is that the original House bill will include a public option, one that is at least strong enough to keep most liberals on board. Some Blue Dogs will vote no, but Democrats have a big enough majority that they can afford to lose some Blue Dogs. Now, when there's a conference report, that's when Obama and Pelosi and everyone else under the sun will start pushing very hard for passage, arguing to liberals that half a bill is better than no bill at all. I would guess that at least some liberals will be receptive to that argument.

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Los Angeles: Why is Sen. Dorgan of North Dakota - of all places! - suddenly the front man for doing almost nothing on health care? Is he an unknown expert in the field, or in the pocket of insurance companies?

Ben Pershing: I assume you're referring to the other North Dakota senator, Kent Conrad, not Dorgan. Conrad argues that there simply aren't enough votes in the Senate for a public option, and he is probably right. He is an advocate for the health-care co-op idea largely because it is his idea. But no one is really sure whether it will work, particularly on such a large scale.

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Grandpa Grassley: I supported Obama, but I am mystified as to why he keeps citing Grassley as a bipartisan-minded Republican. This is a dude who gets a lot of his dough from the insurance industry, who used posters of dragons to talk about health care reform on the Senate floor, and, worst of all, endorsed Sarah Palin's "death panel" charge by saying we should all worry about the possibility of the government "pulling the plug on grandma." Where does he get his bipartisan credentials from? McCain, Snow and Collins I get, but this dude just seems like a snake in the grass.

Ben Pershing: Grassley does have some history of working with Max Baucus on some bipartisan legislation, but you're definitely not the only Democrat who has grown frustrated with him in recent weeks. His most striking recent comment was when he said yesterday that he would vote against a health-care bill he really liked if his fellow Republicans don't support it. Which raises the question: Why is he at the negotiating table if he's just going to follow his colleagues' lead anyway?

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Princeton, N.J.: Your analysis is very different from Nate Silver's at FiveThirtyEight. He believes that a liberal bill will come out of conference and the question will be will Senators like Conrad and Snowe vote for a filibuster. He points out that this would play as an obstructionist vote.

Ben Pershing: Hmm. I'm a big fan of Nate Silver too, but I'm not sure if that's what his analysis really said. Yesterday he wrote, "I don't think a public option is likely to be included in a conference report if it hadn't already been approved in the bill passed by the Senate." And based on his analysis, my own and lots of other people's, it now looks very unlikely that the public option will be included in the original Senate bill.

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washingtonpost.com: How Many Votes Does the Public Option Have? How Many Does it Need? (fivethirtyeight.com)

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Tampa, FL: I have a question no one seems to be able to answer: How can people oppose a public option for health insurance, while supporting public options for crop insurance, export insurance, bank deposit insurance, and flood insurance?

Do the Blue Dogs want to repeal those public option insurance programs? Do the liberal Dems have the intestinal fortitude to tell the Blue Dogs that not passing a public option health insurance plan puts all the other public option insurance plans at risk?

Ben Pershing: That is a very good question. But even if it seems hypocritical, Blue Dogs can oppose the health-care public option without worry about losing those other public options. No one is taking away government-back crop insurance, bank deposit insurance, etc., just to make a point about health care.

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Richmond, Va: I think in the long run the president will look back on this month as a valuable learning experience. He was beaten at the message game. He has to develop a way to rapidly respond to false information put out by the right. The media certainly is not going to do it.

Ben Pershing: This has been a rough month for Obama, message-wise. And it's not just about countering what's coming out of the right. It's about the White House putting out a simple, clear message of its own. This confusion over the public option is a perfect example. Head over to our "44" blog and watch the clip from Jon Stewart's show last night, where he contrasts Obama's health-care messaging with the Bush administration's efforts to sell the Iraq war. Funny, but also a very instructive comparison.

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New York, NY: Here's something I don't understand: Why can't Obama take these Blue Dogs aside and say, "If you do not support this public option, I will make sure you don't win your next election"? Hasn't this been done in the past? How bout a little fear from Obama? I understand that this is an extreme statement, but why can't he get these Blue Dogs in line? Better to be feared than to be loved.

Ben Pershing: Well, most Blue Dogs represent swing districts. So what's Obama going to do? Back the Republican opponents? Most Blue Dogs don't reside in places where more liberal Democrats can win. If Obama backed primary challengers to these people, he'd be putting many of the seats at risk of falling to the GOP. Also, presidents really never back primary challengers to members of their own party. It's just not done.

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Chicago Cubs Fan: Is Roland Burris running or not to keep the seat he currently occupies ? And if he is running -- who will he face and what are his chances ?

Ben Pershing: Burris has already announced he is not running. The Democratic primary in Illinois will likely be between state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias and businessman Chris Kennedy. On the GOP side, Mark Kirk has a clear path to the nomination. Should be a good race.

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Princeton, NJ: Sorry, you are corect. It was Ezra Klein I was quoting, not Nate Silver.

Too much info!

Ben Pershing: Fair enough. Obviously I like Ezra's work too. But I still think the bill that comes out of conference won't have the public option in it.

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washingtonpost.com: Klein -- How Is Conrad Counting the Votes?

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Columbia, Mo.: I have seen no coverage of the wavering "Democrats" and their ties to the insurance industry. Sens. Lieberman (Conn.) and Nelson (Neb.), in particular, represent states with large insurance companies. And the blue dogs? Hard to tell since it's not clear who they are.

Ben Pershing: Lots of senators from lots of states have close ties to the insurance industry. Insurance companies are among the biggest givers of campaign donations to both parties. I think there has been a fair amount of coverage of that point.

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Ben Pershing: Thanks for the great questions, everyone. Save the rest for next time.

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