Cheap Shot

by John Lawrence

One of the favorite canards leveled at the Obama Administration is that it committed an early strategic, policy and political faux-pas by electing to pursue a national health bill rather than dedicating its legislative energies to a second economic stimulus measure. Typically, such critiques come from those oblivious to the realities of Capitol Hill in early 2009. In the last few days, however, the allegation has been leveled by none other than Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) who is (and was at the time) in a position to know better.

Schumer parroted the factually inaccurate critiques, typically hurled out by opponents of both the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA – the Obama stimulus) and by some liberals as well. He also trivialized the impact of the ACA by asserting it has only helped a small number of people – presumably the 30+ million Americans who lacked basic health insurance, not to mention the millions more who gained coverage for pre-existing conditions, the children able to stay on their parents’ policies till age 26, the women who will received free cancer screenings, the elimination of caps on annual health insurance coverage, and many more benefits.

It is a favorite observation in Washington that while you are entitled to your own opinions, you are not entitled to your own facts. That truism applies to United States Senators, as well as to hysterical cable commentators – even to Sen. Schumer.

So let’s recall a few of the facts. Work on the ARRA had begun even before the Obama Administration took office. Congress had already enacted a much smaller stimulus measure and the massive Troubled Assets Relief Act (TARP) under the Bush Administration despite the ambivalence of congressional Republicans towards the crashing economy and its human toll. Once in power, the Obama Administration worked swiftly with congressional leaders to fashion the ARRA which contained hundreds of billions of dollars in middle income relief (including tax cuts designed to attract Republican votes, a strategy which proved unsuccessful at securing GOP votes) and unprecedented investments in alternative energy and other economic innovations.

Despite the Republican slant to the bill’s design and a plummeting economy, House Republicans refused to negotiate on the ARRA and three Senate Republicans supported it only after loading it up with billions of dollars for their own personal priorities. Combined with other measures designed to stabilize and stimulate the economy and aid small businesses and the middle class, Congress had passed – if narrowly – over $1.5 trillion in new public policies within a few months. President Obama and the Democratic congressional leaders turned their attention to the unsustainable health care inflation that was driving hundreds of billions of dollars in both governmental and private sector spending that fueled huge deficit growth.

Now, it is at this point that critics (including Sen. Schumer) assert that the Obama Administration and congressional leaders should have parked their commitment to health care and devoted further time, energy and spending to a third stimulus bill. Such hindsight overlooks a few crucial items: the certain inability to pass more stimulus spending in a Congress that had already enacted the stimulus laws over vigorous Republican opposition; the near-unanimous opposition of Republicans to taking any action – including extension of unemployment benefits – in response to the cratering economy; the massive impact of health costs on spending and the debt; and the rare alignment of a Democratic White House and Democratic supermajorities in Congress that held the hope – not a certainty – of passing the holy grail of progressive politics over the preceding century: health care reform.

If the prospects for additional stimulus were non-existent, the possibility of achieving health care reform were only slightly more promising. Waiting months to slug out an additional stimulus bill, which would likely have failed, might well have jeopardized the ability to pass health care. Leaders would have had to heavily pressure marginal Democrats to cast additional votes for deficit spending which would temper their willingness to vote for a future health care law.   Moreover, further delay ran the risk of a congressional death or resignation that could deprive Democrats of the razor-thin margin by which they surely would have to pass health care reform. As misfortune would have it, the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy confirmed the tenuous hold the Senate majority had on passing a health care law, forcing the novel utilization of the reconciliation process to achieve final passage.

Schumer, who has been a staunch supporter of the ACA, does not argue that the law was a bad piece of legislation, only that Democrats were ignoring the hard-hit middle class by emphasizing health care instead of pushing for more economic assistance. If President Obama and Democratic congressional leaders had promoted additional economic policies, he asserts, “the middle class would have been more receptive to the idea that President Obama wanted to help them … People were hurting and saying, ‘What about me? I’m losing my job. It’s not health care that bothers me. What about me?’”

I’m not sure which “average middle-class voter” Schumer is referencing, but there certainly was no shortage of people who desperately wanted health care reform. Millions of people could not afford care, were being dropped arbitrarily by their insurance carriers, and were facing huge premium increases when they could find coverage; millions more could not secure coverage because of pre-existing conditions ranging from cancer to developmental disabilities to being female. All Americans were enduring escalating federal deficits driven by health care inflation that were cited as reasons for slashing domestic discretionary spending that impacts education, services for the disabled and the elderly, health care research, and environmental protection and alternative energy development. Each of those issues is being positively impacted by the ACA despite the foot-dragging of Republican governors and 55 attempts by House Republicans to repeal the law.

As to the additional recession related legislation that Democrats ignored, it would be interesting to know what initiatives Sen. Schumer thinks could have been enacted: public jobs creation (not a chance), breaking up the huge financial institutions that drove much of the fiscal mischief that weakened the economy (I’m not sure Schumer’s New York constituents would have bought into that approach), tough restrictions on corporate executives and tax changes like carried interest reform to reduce income inequity (ditto for interest among the Wall Street crowd). We tried most of those approaches during the TARP and ARRA efforts and were unable to win enough support to pass any of them. Would Schumer have had Democrats try again, fail, and diminish confidence in the President and the party just when we needed broad support to tackle health care?

Now most assuredly, Schumer was thinking about his constituents with this latest blast, but not the millions of New York constituents who needed both economic assistance and health insurance reform. His “constituents” were his Democratic Senate colleagues, angered at losing the majority in the November elections and pointing accusing fingers at President Obama. Schumer’s attack on the President (and by extension, House and Senate leaders who joined in prioritizing the timing of the health care push) may enhance his stature as one willing to watch out for them and their re-election efforts.

There is plenty of blame to go around for the mishandling of the health care strategy, from the bill’s necessarily modest provisions through a quiescent White House messaging strategy to the near-fatal rollout fiasco. On both the messaging and the roll-out, congressional Democrats have been critical of the White House, and justifiably so; warnings were issued and promises made, and yet the Administration walked into mis-step after mis-step. But choosing the wrong timing for advancing the health care debate, after 100 years of failure, was not one of the mistakes; it was the right thing to do, at the essential time, and further time frittered away on doomed economic legislation would have squandered an opportunity to do something historic, which Democrats did, and for which they should be proud, not apologetic.

Senators narrowly elected in the 2008 Democratic sweep (likely due to the large outpouring of Democratic votes for Barack Obama) just paid the penalty that House Democrats paid earlier in 2010 and 2012, as well as 2014. Dozens of Democratic House Members who owed their improbable elections to the 2008 turnout lost their seats following the rise of the Tea Party and the emergence of hyperbolic assaults on the ACA. Most were active supporters of the ACA, the stimulus, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform and many other Democratic initiatives that helped make the 111th Congress one of the most productive in recent history. And many were marginal Members who knew at the time that their votes could inflame their constituents and jeopardize their jobs. And yet in many conversations with these defeated House Democrats, not one expressed regret to me about having cast the tough votes or having lost their jobs as a result of doing their job and serving their country.

Which makes Schumer’s condemnation of the President all that more startling, particularly given his strong past support for the ACA. Certainly the senator’s statement was intended to appeal to Senate Democrats who might be looking for a new leader in the next few years. It just wasn’t necessary, in order to prove he has their backs, to put a dagger into the backs of President Obama and Democratic congressional leaders.