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The Contingency of the ACA’s Passage

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Yglesias makes a very good point here about the suggestions that Obama lacks “passion”:

January 20, 2010 was one of the very most memorable days of my eleven years in Washington. The previous evening Scott Brown had defeated Martha Coakley in a special election to fill the US Senate vacancy left by Ted Kennedy’s death. Genuinely surprising electoral outcomes are rare, so it was natural that the political community was electrified by Brown’s triumph. But to most observers the stunner also had a very concrete significance — the drive to pass an Obamacare bill through the United States Congress was dead.

Of course Republicans spun it that way. But many Democrats — including senior figures on and off Capitol Hill as well the President’s own chief of staff — agreed as well.

The message of the election was clear. Obamacare was finished. The only question was what, if anything, could be salvaged from the wreckage. At the Center for American Progress, where I was working at the time, the halls were buzzing with scenarios. Maybe a bill to cover all kids? Some kind of Medicaid expansion? Having come so far toward universal coverage, nobody wanted to give up. But the crisis clearly required some dramatic turnabout. Some grand gesture to make it clear that the President “got it.”

That’s the day that came to mind as I was reading Josh Green’s Businessweek story detailing Obama’s alleged failings as a crisis manager.

From Deepwater Horizon to Ebola to ISIS, Green alleges, Obama’s cool cerebral technocratic approach denies “the public’s emotional needs.” The president “disdains the performative aspects of his job.” Consequently, he “struggles to strike the right tone.” He is, in Green’s view, a perpetual under-reactor who has “an excess of faith in government’s ability to solve problems.”

So about Scott Brown.

It turned out that a version of Obamacare had already passed the US Senate with a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority. If House Democrats were willing to abandon their own version of health reform and pass the Senate bill, then the Senate could use the budget reconciliation process to enact some limited changes. Nothing about Brown’s victory changed the fundamental reality. Democrats could have Obamacare if they wanted it, and if they didn’t pass the law it would be because they decided not to, not because Brown’s victory forced them out of it.

Nancy Pelosi was a strong advocate of this view, but it struck many party leaders as insane. Rep. Barney Frank, for instance, declared Obamacare dead on the night of Brown’s win. Ultimately, however, Obama became the hero of his own administration by coming down on her side. He refused to give into the panic gripping the Democrats and focused in on the math of the situation — and there, it turned out, Democrats had more than enough votes to pass the bill. As a response to the Brown win, it made no emotional sense. But it did make sense. And today Obamacare is law.

A lot of people were urging Obama to betray most of his supporters by abandoning comprehensive health care reform, including not only his chief of staff but a number of actual liberals. He didn’t, and this choice mattered.

There’s another narrative that comes up sometimes conflating Emmanuel’s timorousness with Obama’s views, and hence arguing that Pelosi had to persuade Obama to keeping pressing with the ACA although he didn’t want to. At least according to the definitive PBS documentary on the subject, this isn’t true:

CECI CONNOLLY: January 19th, 6:30 PM, about an hour-and-a-half before the polls close in Massachusetts, Obama calls for Pelosi, Reid, Biden and Rahm Emanuel to come to the Oval Office.

NARRATOR: They immediately convened an emergency meeting.

DAN PFEIFFER: From the very moment that it was clear that Scott Brown was going to win that seat, he began thinking through what the next steps would be to be able to right the ship and get health care done.

NARRATOR: The president asked Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi if she could get the House to pass the Senate bill.

CECI CONNOLLY: Pelosi is annoyed and quite adamant that there’s no way she can sell that to her House members, almost kind of lecturing, saying, “You don’t understand the realities in the House. This won’t work.” And Obama finally snaps, uncharacteristically for him, and he says, “I understand that, Nancy. What’s your suggestion?” And there is no suggestion.

My point here is not to deny Pelosi the enormous credit she deserves for getting the Senate bill through the House — her analysis that it would be a very heavy lift at best wasn’t wrong. I still don’t like the term “Obamacare” because it contributes to the pernicious myth that presidents unilaterally impose major legislative choices from the top down. But the point here as that Obama and Pelosi were allies against the Emmanuels and Franks. They didn’t start out on the opposite side. (And as djw observed earlier today in comments, the evidence-free assertions that Obama was the puppet of his chief of staff are not merely wrong but offensive for obvious reasons.)

The key point here is that the interesting counterfactual question isn’t why the ACA wasn’t better — as the pathetic quality of the counterfactuals trying to make an argument that the Senate could have passed something significantly better indicates, that’s not a difficult or particularly interesting question. The real contingency cuts the other way — with different presidential and congressional leadership it absolutely could have failed entirely once again. (Although I still think that Clinton/Pelosi/Reid also would have gotten it done; I suspect Clinton might have been more receptive to this kind of what-about-the-next-midterm caution in general, but not on health care specifically.) But as to suggestions that I should be nostalgic for the Golden Age of the Democratic Party when the White House and congressional leadership were 1)more conservative than Obama/Pelosi/Reid and 2)could screw up a gin-and-tonic, I’m going to continue pass.

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