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Post Politics Hour: Weekend Review and a Look Ahead

Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 24, 2009 11:00 AM

Every Monday, The Post's Perry Bacon Jr. takes your questions about the latest political news, and previews the week ahead.

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Perry Bacon Jr.: Good morning. Welcome to the chat. The President is on vacation and Congress is in recess, but the health care debate continues.

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Fairfax, Va.: 1. Current odds on health care reform this year?

2. Current odds on climate change legislation this year?

Perry Bacon Jr.: I think the health care debate will take up much of the year, and some of the same conservative Dems in the Senate who are weary of the health care bill are also wary of climate change, hence I don't see the later happening this year. I think there will be a big push to get something passed on health care; the question will be what's in it. Lots of talk about "scaling back" lately that will annoy more liberal Democrats.

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Fairfax County, Virginia: I saw a story this weekend that the White House "hasn't ruled out" the possibility of adding another town hall this week, before the Obamas complete their vacation. I hope to God they rule it out right now, and on political grounds.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Pictures of the Obamas heading down the Air Force One steps on vacation are cheery and fun and make most people feel more favorable toward the first family. Someone who promises his kids a vacation and then schedules a town hall is not a good role model for Dads. Plus, a decision to do a town hall would make such a person look like a neurotic workaholic. Vacations should be vacations. Do you agree the White House should close the door to this little trial balloon tout suite?

Perry Bacon Jr.: I"m not going to start advising the president on his vacation plans or his responsibilities as a father. I have read that they are very unlikely to hold any events over this break. That said, I do agree with one of the premises of your question: his town halls don't seem to moving the needle much on health care. The president has been touting his proposals for weeks and they are going down in popularity, which suggests to me his current messaging isn't working or the opposition is doing a better job. I will be curious how he and the congressional Democrats come back in September.

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Silver Spring, MD: Maybe I'm showing my age but I remember that years ago senators who could not attend a vote could be "paired" if there were an equal number for and against what was to be voted on. An equal number would agree to be absent.

If this system were still in effect it wouldn't matter that Kennedy couldn't be present for votes on health care reform as long as someone (presumably a Republican) who intended to vote the opposite way also could not attend. Both would agree to not attend.

When did this stop?

Perry Bacon Jr.: I"m not exactly sure of the roots of this pairing, but on a big issue like health care, no one who is physically able to vote will miss it or do anything but vote what their instincts/politics/ideology dictate. I think too much is being made of the Kennedy vote myself. Very few bills pass in Congress with exactly 60 votes; the conservative Dems want to vote for a bill with no GOP backing; in terms of substance, a bill Ben Nelson votes for it likely to one Olympia Snowe votes for.

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Anonymous: Mr. Bacon, Is there validity to critics of the press as they missed many of the lies/spin of the Bush/Cheney administration?

Perry Bacon Jr.: Sure. I think the press has conceded repeatedly it should have been more skeptical about the administration's claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

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Menomonie, WI: Good morning. Does President Obama read the news? In his virtual town hall meeting the other day, he continued to compliment Charles Grassley, who just a couple days before, jumped onto Sara Palin's death panels band wagon. If President Obama was aware of this, by continuing to compliment Grassley, is he just trying to guilt Grassley?

Perry Bacon Jr.: Yes, the president reads the news, including our own Washington Post. I think he wants to work with Republicans if he can and Grassley is at least at the table, although lots of Dems are mad at Grassley over his "grandma" comment, which the senator essentially backtracked from on tv yesterday. The issue I think is more important is this: Grassley has said he will only back a bill if a large number of other GOP senators also do. I"m curious what kind of legislation 20 members of the Republican caucus would back on health care and how Democrats would view that legislation. I just have a hard time seeing health care legislation that gets 75 votes.

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Avon Park, FL: I think that the White House made a mistake in deferring to Congress regarding health care. Obama should've used the meagaphone of the Presidency to promote health care early on. Is it too late for him to regain the initiative on this?

Perry Bacon Jr.: There's lot of debate on this question. I think my colleague Ezra Klein wrote a piece on this point. I happen to think he hasn't deferred to Congress that much and has been highly involved in giving his goals for the legislation, which resembles what he proposed for the campaign. I think this problem has been that the health care system is very complicated, lots of people have legitimate concerns, others less legitimate concerns they are loudly expressing and Congress itself can't agree on what to do and to some extent there isn't a strong political will behind this. I think he is using the megaphone a lot on this issue, some would say too much. I just don't think his message is selling right now

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Towson, Md.: There's been a lot of talk about cooperatives, but some have noted the only enthusiasm seems to be among a handful of moderate Senators and Blue Dogs, and experts have doubts. And many noted that there isn't a detailed proposal out yet. How much do advocates of cooperatives, like Kent Conrad, have to demonstrate in terms of substantive policy to make it law?

Perry Bacon Jr.: I agree that cooperatives seem to have lots of enthusiasm among a rather small number in Congress and many liberal experts say they are not they same as a true-Medicare like option. And no one is quite sure if they will work. That said, they seem a logical political solution if the government-operated plan can't pass. I think if Conrad gets an agreement that includes 5 Republicans who will vote for it and has a co-op, the president will eagerly sign on.

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Boston: What are three possible look-back storylines six months from now when reviewing Obama's performance this summer and early fall? What is the probability for each?

Perry Bacon Jr.: I don't know if i precisely understand this question, but we could look back at this July-August time in say 2011 as 1. when Obama lost his momentum and it gave Republicans an opening and weakened support among Democrats for the president 2. a temporary blip before he passed major legislation on an issue that has frustrated other presidents 3. something in between, a bill passes, but is more incremental, annoying some liberals but giving the president a modest accomplishment. His team might learn some lessons here that help them pass climate change or something.

I have no idea which one of these things is more likely, so I won't rank them.

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Las Cruces, NM: Much of the angst about the Health Care reform is voiced by seniors worried about changes to Medicare (Obama has repeatedly said that savings must come from Medicare). If you recall, in the '80's and '90's Republicans wanted to cut the rise in Medicare costs and were vilified (sometimes with very obvious lies, for instance - calling a reduction in increased funding "funding cuts") Is there any irony that Obama is now being vilified for the same reasons? I remember some pretty irresponsible t.v. ads, especially during the Reagan/Bush years.

Perry Bacon Jr.: Yes, the way this issue has flipped is interesting. I wrote a piece about the Republicans that ran Sunday and I quoted ex-Bush aide David Frum complaining about how his party is making the kinds of attacks on Medicare that Democrats once did. Michael Steele has an op-ed in our paper attacking Obama on this issue, much as President Clinton did of Dole in the 1996 campaign. I do think the president's team has a major problem with seniors and has to get them behind the reform effort.

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Williamsburg, Va.: "I think if Conrad gets an agreement that includes 5 Republicans who will vote for it and has a co-op, the president will eagerly sign on."

But there are 65 House members who have explicitly pledged not to vote for a bill without a public option. And it is likely that there are over 40 Senators who will not vote for a bill with one (but probably not 50). Doesn't that make "reconciliation" the only viable route?

Perry Bacon Jr.: I have real doubts 65 house members are going to vote against a bill that would expand health insurance to millions of Americans if it doesn't have a public option. I consider this a threat and a negotiating tactic. I've talked to a few of these members who have signed this letter, and they don't seem as committed to a public option as you would think. Reconciliation is one route; I think the more obvious route remains a bill with no public option that gets the votes of Snowe, Collins, and a few other Republicans.

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New York: Perry, thanks for the chat. Is it really worth getting upset/excited/depressed over the current health reform proposals? Won't the real fights and the most intense lobbying occur during the House-Senate conference when they actually produce a real final bill? Or do you think by that time, everyone will have run out of steam? (Gee, I hope so...)

Perry Bacon Jr.: I disagree. The bills that are passed before the Congress set the parameters of the conference. The House liberals want a public option in their bill in part because that becomes a bargaining chip; it means that if they drop that as part of the bill, they may not have to drop other issues they care about. If any Republicans back the Senate version, those changes are likely to be protected in the conference. And if neither chamber can pass a bill in the first place, an increasingly likely possibility, that of course is a big story.

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Capitol Hill, Washington DC : Isn't this all about jobs?

As well as the economy is growing and improving--people are still losing their jobs.

To paraphrase Reagen a recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose your job.

It is hard to think the economy is getting better when the unemployment rate is this high. And it is personal pain to not have employment.

What is being done to grow employment.

Perry Bacon Jr.: I agree with you. I think one of the big problems the president confronts is that a country worried intensely about the economy is being told to focus on health care. And I think the Republicans have smartly, if not correctly, cast the stimulus as a big government failure and linked that to health care. If the economy was better, I think the president would have a better chance on health care. The White House says the stimulus will help keep jobs in place and that the economy is turning around already. Stay tuned.

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Helena, Montana: Perry, when you talk about poll numbers dropping for the President and health care reform - do you assume that everyone who doesn't support his approach are in agreement on their reasons? I ask this because I don't support Max Baucus approach - seems to me that negotiating with people who in other venues state categorically that they cannot support anything that comes out of those negotiations is just playing political theater.

So my support for the president will increase if he takes a firm stand on what he wants in a health reform package. It seems to me that the media assumes there is uniform opposition to the Democrats when there are disparate reasons for opposition that are just lumped together - and actually makes the debate that much more difficult because the media doesn't do nuance.

Perry Bacon Jr.: Two things. I think the number of people opposed to the president's agenda because he is not being clear enough about it is quite small. I think the media has explained there are lots of different segments of the population weary of the reform, Democratic-friendly seniors, partisan Republicans, people who simply like their insurance, independent voters wary of the size of government. I think our polls simply show agreement with the president dropping; I think people can have lots of different reasons for opposing the reform; the important thing is they oppose it and that will make it harder for Obama to get members of Congress to support it.

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Laurel, MD: I am wondering why the "Gang of Six" in the Senate consists of three Republicans and three Democrats, all of whom are from small rural states when the Dems have 60 seats in the Senate and won a resounding victory in 2008? Who decided to put these conservatives and right wingers (Enzi and Grassley) along with a Senator owned by the health insurance industry (Baucus) in charge of devising a Senate resolution on health care? As a liberal Democrat I am outraged!

Perry Bacon Jr.: My colleague Alec Macgillis shares those frustration and wrote a piece on this subject. Here's what he said:

"Between them, those six states hold 8.4 million people -- less than New Jersey -- and represent 3 percent of the U.S. population. North Dakota and Wyoming each have fewer than 80,000 uninsured people, in a country where about 47 million lack insurance. In the House, those six states have 13 seats out of 435, 3 percent of the whole. In the Senate, those six members are crafting what may well be the blueprint for reform."

((http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/07/AR2009080702045.html))

Let me make a few points. First of all, of course Snowe is in the room, she is the most likely Republican to vote for a bill. Grassley and Baucus are the leaders of the committee; of course they are in the room. Grassley wanted Enzi, who knows a lot about health care, whatever you think of him. Conrad and Bingaman are people who are looking for a compromise. can i just add one thing? THE GANG OF SIX DOES NOT RUN HEALTH CARE. Whatever the Gang decides, the full Finance Committee, which has Schumer and lots of liberal Democrats, can vote it down. Or the full Senate can vote it down.

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Fairfax, VA: I am a Republican who voted for Obama. One of the reasons was health care reform. If the Dems with large majorities in both chambers cannot pass health care reform, I may stay home next time.

Perry Bacon Jr.: This is an interesting thought. If health reform doesn't pass, who would one blame? The Democrats have control, but not total control, the Republicans can probably band together and block a health care bill in the Senate.

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Arlington, Va.: I see lots of Republicans and conservative commentators are complaining that Obama is on vacation for a week. Have they forgotten all of those months Bush spent at his "ranch"?

Perry Bacon Jr.: Not sure i get this complaint. My colleague Dan Eggen wrote about presidential vacations a few weeks ago. All presidents take them.

Per Dan's story

"summer vacations say a lot about a president. Ronald Reagan spent up to a month each season at his beloved Rancho del Cielo near Santa Barbara, Calif., much of the time on horseback. George H.W. Bush retreated to the family's compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, while his son, George W. Bush, preferred clearing brush at his ranch in Crawford, Tex.

Then there was Bill Clinton, always restless and without a home, who often borrowed the compound of a wealthy Democratic donor on Martha's Vineyard, Mass., spending nights on the town hosting fundraisers or playing the saxophone in a local tavern.

President Obama will bring his notably calmer, cooler demeanor to the Vineyard when he arrives Aug. 23 for a family vacation. There are no public events scheduled during the week; Obama plans to spend most of the time in seclusion with his family and a few close friends, aides say."

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Arlington, Va.: PB: "...and has been highly involved in giving his goals for the legislation, which resembles what he proposed for the campaign."

Perry, with great respect, I think you're misremembering. During the campaign, Obama strongly opposed an individual mandate. This was one of his big points of disagreement with Clinton.

Perry Bacon Jr.: It resembles what he proposed in campaign, goal of universal coverage, subsides for people who can't afford coverage, setting up health care exchanges, a public option, no denying based on pre-existing conditions, employer mandate.

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Philadelphia, PA : "If President Obama was aware of this, by continuing to compliment Grassley, is he just trying to guilt Grassley?"

Not exactly...the President is focused on being the sane adult in the room, as he did throughout his campaign quite successfully. The President seems to have mastered the art of standing by while his adversaries go over the edge of reason and disqualify themselves -- Bill Clinton in the primary, McCain in the general. He's continuing to do this, but we don't yet have the perspective to see it play out in health care. He'll give Republicans and mod. Dems every chance to climb on board to some sort of deal. When it's clear that they will not go for any form of health reform, he'll push his agenda forward.

Perry Bacon Jr.: Not sure I agree McCain or the Clintons disqualified themselves, but you are generally right: I think the president is looking for every way to pass health reform with a consensus and a large number of members of both parties, but will do what he can to get it done if such a consensus doesn't emerge.

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Grassley's "Grandma" comment: Are statements like Grassley's "Grandma" comment orchestrated very carefully? It seems to me that he can make these statements, then back off of them to appease the opposition. However, the damage has been done already.

This must be intentional, mustn't it?

Perry Bacon Jr.: i was with Grassley in Iowa, and my sense was he was trying to distinguish what he is doing from the bills already passed in Congress (the HOuse version, the Senate HELP committee version) and also win some street cred with conservative Republicans by saying he is against a bill that would fund insurance for illegal immigrants or hurt Grandma (none of the bills do either, but those are popular conservative myths.) He is in a complicated situation, as he seems to want to be involved in a deal, but is aware he could face 2010 primary challenge if he doesn't. I will be surprised if he backs a compromise to get the bill passed.

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Chicago: You're calling the stimulus a failure? Yes, unemployment remains high but there are definite signs of recovery and the bulk of the benefit is yet to come. Quit repeating defeatist GOP talking points.

Perry Bacon Jr.: I"m not calling the stimulus a failure, I"m saying the Republicans are, and i think that's part of their strategy to stop the health care bill. I think the data is mixed now but that unemployment is likely to be lower next year.

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Mooresville NC: How can the American people have forgotten who wielded total operational control over every aspect of their country? Two wars, sweetheart Medicare drug deals, trashing civil liberties and longheld standards of decency? To hand Obama a smoking ruin and then blame him for it is beyond outrageous.

Perry Bacon Jr.: Obama is still pretty personal popular and I would argue that has something to do with him and something to do with the fact his last name is not Bush. And if Obama is moving down in the polls a bit, the Repulicans are doing much worse. Congressional REpublicans in our last poll were trusted by something like 21% of voters, while the president is trusted to handle major issues by a majority of voters.

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Selling Health Care Reform: I believe your response to Avon Park was pretty close to being on target, but the submitter had a point. Reform is needed, but is starting to fail if the polls are accurate. We need a coherent plan that all can understand and see the benefits clearly, like The Contract with America. Whether you agreed with it or not, it was a brilliantly conceived sales pitch to the American people. Do you anticipate anything as cogent coming down the pike?

Perry Bacon Jr.: in 1994, most voters had never heard of the Contract with America when they voted. Moving to do this year's debate, the president and the Congressional Democrats have repeatedly said the same things about the reform, it will reform how insurance companies work, be deficit neutral, etc. The House members have a card with eight statements of principles for what this bill will do. I think for people who already have insurance, these benefits aren't as easy to think about as death panels. But I don't precisely know why this messsage is not getting through.

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Roseland, NJ: Stupid question: I've heard many conservatives, including Tom Coburn, say that the solution to the health care issue is to "eliminate" barriers that prevent health insurers from competing "across state lines". What barriers are they talking about? If it's state laws and regulations... that's not actually something federal legislation can change, is it? Tenth amendment and all that?

Perry Bacon Jr.: Essentially, a state like Massachusetts has lots of requirements on any health plan a person can buy and be enrolled in there, for example, it must cover certain kinds of screenings. A Massachusetts resident can't buy a plan from a company based in Oklahoma even if that plan is cheaper if it doesn't cover everything Massachusetts requires.

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New York: I'm wondering whether the White House is considering putting new faces out there to sell health care reform -- prominent insurance CEOs, doctors, Tom Daschle -- people who might be able to bridge the gaps among the various groups with legitimate differences. Putting the President out there isn't working, I think. Thanks.

Perry Bacon Jr.: The president is constantly joined by doctors, nurses at his events. The president gets more coverage than others. But yes, have heard they will have some more voices out there on health care.

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Anonymous: Earlier, you mentioned "Republican Myths" regarding health care reform. Is not the very existence of such a thing a major news story?

Perry Bacon Jr.: We have covered many of these myths intensely. Read Howard Kurtz's piece today for example.

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The data...: 77% of Americans want the choice of a public option along with private insurance. NBC / WSJ. To me, this says that the people agree with the President without fully realizing that they do -- or they intend to send a mixed signal: I don't want a public option that destroys the insurance industry.

Perry Bacon Jr.: Could it be possible the people who oppose the public option live in states like Arkansas, North Dakota, etc. (those senators don't seem overly concerned with people in favor of the public option) Just a thought.

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Perry Bacon Jr.: Thanks for the great questions folks. Have a great week.

Perry

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