Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Speech, The Outburst, The Partisanship

Our President Can Give a Speech...But Can He Get a Bill?
In case we had all forgotten the 2008 campaign, we were reminded again on Wednesday night that President Obama is, quite clearly in my mind and not by a close margin, the greatest speech-giver of our generation. The President was lucid, decisive and inspiring in his speech. I have no doubt that to the extent that the speech was watched, it will move the needle, at least temporarily, on public opinion of health care reform.

There are plenty of legitimate things to quibble about regarding health care reform: the continued lack of details from the White House, the lack of serious bi-partisan outreach (more on that later), the lack of clarity around how we are going to pay for all of this without either killing the upper class or breaking his pledge on middle class taxes. But, I've got to give credit where credit is due, and this was another exercise in rhetorical genius from President Obama.

But speeches don't pass bills, politicans do, and there is little evidence that this did much to change the political realities of health care reform. And I'm left with the same principle question that I had before the speech: what combination of reforms can bridge the gap between liberals and Blue Dogs to actually pass a bill?

The Outburst
If you didn't watch the speech live and simply tuned in to news reports today, all you probably heard about was the outburst from Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC), who shouted out "you lie!" while President Obama was attempting to debunk the claims that have been made by some on the right that proposed health care reform legislation would provide coverage to illegal immigrants.

Dealing very quickly with the substance of the remark, I find Wilson's assertion to be clearly false. The non-partisan rated his remark "false" as does basic common sense -- a bill that provides a combination of employer mandates and tax credits simply does not aim to provide illegal immigrants with benefits, since they cannot be legally employed and do not file federal taxes as they have no social security number. Could some illegal immigrants with forged documents perhaps receive coverage under the program? Sure, it's possible. But to say that this is somehow the intent of the bill is ridiculous.

As far as the outburst itself is concerned, the primary point is not about the veracity of the remark. Certainly, there are members of both political parties who have believed that Presidents have lied in the past...Wilson clearly seems to believe what he said, many on the left clearly believed that President Bush lied in the run-up to the Iraq Wars, many on the right I'm sure believed that President Clinton lied about everything from extramarital affairs to his real estate dealings.

No, the point of all of this is one of basic decorum and standards of behavior. Saying that the President is not telling the truth is perfectly legitimate political expression -- in a newspaper column, a blog, even a tweet. You can say it in an interview with CNN and Fox News. What is not acceptable is to insult the Office of the President with an outburst in the most formal of settings. We simply don't do that, because we respect the INSTITUTION of the Presidency too much, even if we don't happen to be enamored with its current occupant.

In other countries, different social norms apply. In Britian, the House of Commons routinely has outburst at the Prime Minister's Question and Answer sessions -- this is a proud part of their tradition of political theater (and actually quite entertaining if you ever catch it on PBS.) But we are not the Brits. And in the United States of America, you simply do not do what Wilson did.

Wilson has apologized and President Obama has accepted. Good enough for me. Wilson also released a webcast attempting to raise money the same day seemingly using the outburst as a selling point. Pretty sleezy, but I can understand it, given that his opponent raised almost half a million dollars immediately following the outburst. My inclination is that we should just let this story die. No formal censure, as some have suggested, is necessary. This was a question of very poor behavior, but it isn't an ethics or legal violation.

No Bipartisanship in Sight
Perhaps the part of President Obama's speech that most strained credibility for me was the notion that he still wants to reach a bipartisan solution. He offered up the token of taking up Senator John McCain (R-AZ)'s ideas around health insurance portability. Complete tokenism. There is no evidence of a serious bipartisan outreach or any indication that there will be a bill supported by any members of the GOP other than perhaps Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME).

There are two clear paths here: the President could pursue a truly bi-partisan reform bill that would be very limited. For instance, he could probably pass a bill that includes prohibiting pre-existing condition exclusions, does tort reform and creates health insurance co-ops and get broad GOP support. Or, he could go for a bill with a Government insurance alternative, mandates employer coverage and heavily subsidizes premiums for the lower-class and pass it with only Democratic votes. Both approaches have some merit.

What President Obama cannot credibly do is to pass a bill that is largely chock full of Democratic ideas and call it an attempt at bipartisanship. Bipartisanship by its very nature means compromise -- the two parties are not one party because they fundamentally disagree on things. To get a bipartisan bill, you have to attempt to split the difference. And the White House doesn't appear interested in doing this. They don't have to. They won the election. But you can call it bipartisanship if what you mean is "I want Republicans to vote for my Democratic bill."

Is Obama Reading This Blog?
I suggest President Obama should give ground on the public option -- two days later he does just that. I suggest that he should offer up tort reform as the basis for a compromise -- a week later he does so in a major speech.

Is someone from the White House reading this space? I'd be very flattered if they are, although I suspect that there are simply some very bright people in the White House who come sometimes come up with some of the same ideas that I do.

August a Low for Our Ratings
August was a significant slump for readership of this space. This site drew 171 hits in August, by far our lowest total to date (we had never had a month with less than 200 hits prior to last month.) It's disappointing, but not terribly surprising as August tends to be a lull for political sites and politics in generally.

Hopefully a lot of you that took a break from this space in August are back reading again. I do my best to bring you interesting political analysis and commentary without there ever being a charge to you, the reader.

If you like this site, and especially if you work in the White House or know anyone who does, please recommend us. And your comments, as always, are welcome.

No comments: