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ACA Second-Guessing, From the Right


Jim Webb gives us a familiar story:

Webb voted for the law, but also for more than a dozen GOP-offered amendments to it.

“If you were going to do something of this magnitude, you have to do it with some clarity, with a clear set of objectives from the White House,” added Webb, who opted not to run for a second term this year. “…It should have been done with better direction from the White House.”

He faulted Obama for playing too passive a role in shaping the legislation. Taking a lesson from Bill Clinton’s failed 1994 health-care overhaul effort–which was faulted for its micromanagement of the details of the bill–Obama opted to spell out a broad set of goals, and let Congress work out the details.

As always, it’s impossible to know for certain if this kind of baseless counterfactual speculation is correct. But we can say that it is extremely implausible. The biggest problem — which Tumulty, to her credit, notes — is that what Webb is describing is the Clinton strategy, which Obama had very good reasons not to use since it was a complete disaster. The resulting process in the World’s Worst Deliberative Body was highly inefficient, but it’s not clear how that’s Obama’s fault. At any rate, I think it’s pretty clear that had Obama tried a more high-handed approach Webb would now be complaining about how Obama failed to treat the members of the Greatest Legislative Body There Absolutely Ever Was with due respect and this explains why the bill is unpopular.

But what would a better approach have been? Here, Webb gives away the show:

Webb also said that if Obama had opted for a smaller measure, he would have stood a chance of winning the support of a significant number of Republicans on Capitol Hill.

So ultimately this is Frank’s argument from the right — what Obama did wrong was actually tying to get some kind of serious health reform passed. He should have done something “small” enough to attract “significant” Republican support; presumably, the “give lots of money to insurance companies while cutting Medicaid and not requiring them to cover anybody” act.

But Webb does make clear what we’re dealing with. The Webb/Frank critique is at least coherent — essentially, it’s that Obama’s mistake was trying to pass any kind of significant health care legislation, and continuing the status quo for another generation would have been fine. But the critique from the left — that Obama could have used the Game-Changing Political Capital of the BULLY PULPIT to get the Senate to pass a robust public option — is about as clearly wrong as a counterfactual can be. You have no negotiating leverage over people who don’t care if anything passes, and Webb and the other conservative Democrats who held the balance of power in the Senate can’t even be bothered to pretend that they cared.

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