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Post Politics: Wilson Rebuke, Confederate Flag, More

Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 16, 2009 11:00 AM

Washington Post White House reporter Michael A. Fletcher discusses the latest news about the Obama administration, Congress and more.

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Michael A. Fletcher: Good morning, everyone. The much awaited Senate Finance health care bill has been unveiled, and Congressman Wilson has been "admonished." So there's plenty to talk about. Let's get started.

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Anonymous: Despite Joe Wilson's protestations of not being a racist, he has defended the flying of the confederate flag, is a member of the Sons of the Confederacy, and attacked Strom Thurmond's daughter after she revealed herself publicly that she was the product of his relationship with a black woman. Sounds not only racist, but insensitive.

Michael A. Fletcher: A lot of people would agree with that sentiment. But others would say the confederate flag is a proud Southern symbol, not a symbol of white supremacy. They would also say that the Sons of the Confederacy just want to keep memory of that history alive and that Wilson was being loyal to his former boss in going after Strom Thurmond's mixed-race daughter. Such is the divide in American politics today.

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Fair Lawn, NJ : Poor Baucus. The sap could have come out with "The Ronald Reagan Health Care Reform Act" which would have consisted solely of requiring every doctors' office to have a color photograph on display of the Republican Icon, and his GOP colleagues still would have not signed on. He's pretty slow on the uptake; as in 1994, they want to defeat anything that a Dem president comes out with. It is a strategy, and not a secret. Ask Bob Dole, who's on the other side now, too late. Move the goal posts all you want; more them right off the field. It makes no difference. Slow learner, that one. Did he really think that people like Grassley are going to want a primary from the likes of what has been showing up at the town halls? D-U-M-B.

washingtonpost.com: Baucus Proposes 10-Year, $856 Billion Bill

Michael A. Fletcher: Interesting take. My sense is that Baucus, as much as anything, is being true to his own centrist political leanings. But it also seems clear that Republicans do not want a health care reform bill that in any way resembles what the Democrats are talking about. That said, it strikes me that (at least some)Democrats also have a strategy in play: make every effort at bipartisanship (which all polls say is what the people want) then, in the end, do what you have to do, while picking up just the minimum amount of GOP needed to pass something.Hard to tell whether that is going to work, but we'll see.

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Helena, Montana: Rather funny listening to the debate on House floor regarding "Joe" Wilson - Republicans talking about how he had apologized without noting that he was also going around saying he really wasn't sorry for what he said. When is an apology an apology and not just words?

washingtonpost.com: House Votes to Rebuke Wilson

Michael A. Fletcher: Good question. I read where he was captured in a picture or video autographing a picture of himself interrupting the president. This appears to have been a coup for the congressman who has been able to rake in huge sums of campaign cash while vaulting from obscurty into a venerated conservative symbol.

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Dallas: So Wilson has been censured, what does that mean? Is it a real punishment? or is it toothless (Which would be in line with most of Congress' actions)?

Michael A. Fletcher: Seems like the latter.

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9/12 crowds: Hello, Michael. Thanks for taking questions. What is the best and most educated guess about the size of the crowds in DC on Sept. 12? There is quite a discrepancy between 60,000 and 2 million. Why is it so hard to get a good estimate?

Michael A. Fletcher: Both of those sound high, and clearly the second number is way, way high. My colleagues say it was in the tens of thousands, probably around 20,00 or 30,000 although it is hard to tell and police did not release an estimate.

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Cumberland, Md.: The Dems want a massive bill for themselves not for the country. The country is broke. Why don't they just do a few incremental things that deal with insurance companies etc. Look Massachusetts health care is in financial trouble, so is the one in Tenn., not to mention California. Even overseas, NHS in the UK is in trouble. Why do the Democrats want to bankrupt the country further when the evidence indicates we can't afford it?

Michael A. Fletcher: Their argument is that the health care bill, while requiring huge expenditures to cover the uninsured and pay for subsidies for people who would be required to buy health insurance, is actually the key to getting future deficits under control. The reforms, they say, will squeeze savings out of Medicare and health insurance and drug companies. And they say those savings would not be possible if we don't require everyone (or almost every one) to be covered. That would increase the pool for health care companies. And you can't very well ask a working class person to buy something as expensive as health insurance without help, they say. The bill also would create incentives for doctors to collaborate more, put medical records on line and use proven treatments, which would further reduce costs, proponents say. If they are successful in reducing the future growth in health care costs, it will help both the deficit and private businesses, which are straining under the weight of growing health care costs. The thing here, of course, is that the savings remain speculative.

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Confederate Flag: I would agree that the confederate flag is a symbol of Southern heritage IF it were flown by anyone other than racists. The confederate flag was used by the segregationists in the 1960s; by the white supremacists; and by Nazis. What non-racists are flying that flag?

Michael A. Fletcher: I can't answer that one. I'll throw it out for comment from our group.

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Oy Vey: Today's Time.com reports health insurance premiums are up 130% over the past ten years (sadly the Census reports salaries are up 0% over the same time frame). Today's Boston Globe reports that health insurers are planning on 10% premium increases and strapped employers are planning on passing the new cost on to workers. What does it take to get folks like Baucus and Snowe serious about doing something (like a public option) to control health insurers ravenous revenue appetite?

washingtonpost.com: Health-Insurance Premiums Up 131% in Past 10 Years

Michael A. Fletcher: I'm sure they see themselves as serious. But the stats you mention get to the core of the nation's problem with health care costs.

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Falls Church, Va.: Who benefits from keeping the Joe Wilson controversy alive? It seems to me that by keeping him on the front page, the House's action is a harmful distraction to Obama.

And it's got to start working to Wilson's benefit with his own constituents. Did you see the Wilson commercial where his wife recounts asking him after the speech, "who was the idiot who heckled the President" and not believeing him at first when he said it was him?

Michael A. Fletcher: Haven't seen the commercial. But it seems to me that Wilson is getting a good ride out of this. He is now being cast as a victim in this by those who back him and he is raking in campaign cash from supporters across the country.

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Re: spending: Except the CBO slammed the proposal as actually raising cost and not being deficit neutral, so that argument is pretty much out. The left may want health care, but they also want a new entitlement program where they can funnel off billions to favorable groups as they choose.

Michael A. Fletcher: I don't think that is accurate. First, there is no "proposal" as such. True enough, a number of bills have come out of congress, and none fulfill the goals laid out by President Obama. Perhaps the Baucus bill does. But the president has said repeatedly that he will not sign a bill that increases the deficit or increases the cost of health care. The question is whether people believe him.

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Princeton, NJ: I am a mathematician and the inability of smart people to face facts on "tort reform" is driving me nuts. These facts are clear. States with tort reform not only have no lower health costs, but the frequency of tests and treatments is similar to those states without tort reform. Tort reform , caps on malpractice suits, does not save money. If you go to page 150 ff of CBO: Key Issues in Analyzing Major Health Insurance Proposals (PDF), you will see much of the data.

Is there any way I can get people to face facts besides going to the Mall, pouring gasoline over myself, and lighting a match?

Michael A. Fletcher: Please, Princeton, don't go that far. Part of the problem, I think, is that people can't get their minds around the enormity of the health care business--more than $2 trillion a year, one-sixth of the overall economy. So people hear anecdotally about big malpractice settlements or judgments and intuitively they think it is a big part of spiraling health care costs. But there are states that have done tort reform and their experiences vary, best I can tell. But like so many political debates, this debate over health care has veered away from dispassionate facts into heated ideology and outright distortions and political theater. It might be (a little) entertaining, but it is also sad.

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Vienna, VA: I asked my son, who lives in the UK, what people there were saying about what people in the US were saying about the Brit's National Health. He said, "You mean about the long waits for care? I call up at 8 am and they say 'Is ten am all right for you?'" That would never happen to me. First of all, my pysicians don't open their phones until 9 am. Then I might get "We can squeeze you in next Tuesday." And I have health insurance.

Michael A. Fletcher: Interesting.

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About health care: The real question that needs to be answered is whether access to health care is a right or a privelege. Most industrialized countries, and some not so industrialized regard it as a right. Furthermore, they deliver better care at much lower cost than we do in the US.

Michael A. Fletcher: That's the moral argument. But interestingly, the Obama administration has used mostly an economic argument to fuel its reform agenda.

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re: Costs: "But the president has said repeatedly that he will not sign a bill that increases the deficit or increases the cost of health care"

All they have to do is say that we will save $x from eliminating waste. Sort of like "saving jobs."

Speaking of eliminating waste...wasn't Al Gore charged with finding and eliminating waste? How did that go?

Michael A. Fletcher: I think you put your finger on President Obama's problem here. People just don't see how he would expand coverage to all (or nearly all Americans), pay for it without touching the pocketbooks of those earning under a quarter million dollars a year, ensure that the bill does nothing to change your relationship with your doctor or other health care provider, and make care better. I think people feel that by necessity, things would change, not that change would necessarily be bad. But it seems that people just can't swallow the big promises the president is offering.

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Michael A. Fletcher: Gotta run. Thanks for the questions.

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