I went to a town hall today and I have to say that I am not optimistic. It mostly confirmed my worst fears about the House Democrats.6 is the most hopeful thing here, as it suggests that Weiner isn't opposed to walking the path of reason and accepting Senate Bill + reconciliation vehicle, if led to it by the House leadership. But all in all, this is pretty dismal.
Setting: Upscale neighborhood in Brooklyn. About 150 people attended.
Who: Congresswoman Clarke and Congressman Weiner
What happened: Weiner gave a brief presentation about the virtues of single payer, the evils of the Senate bill, the disfunctionality of the Senate and how Obama messed up by not taking the this to the people. Then Clarke spoke. She said that she agreed with everything that Weiner said and then told people that they needed to be more active to compete with the tea party crowd. Both of them indicate that they would vote against the Senate bill as is because "it is bad for New York". The main problem mentioned was that the bill would allegedly stick New York state with huge liability for new Medicaid costs.
Weiner talked eloquently about single payer, Medicare buy-in and the evils of the insurance companies. He has no plan to get any of this passed the Senate. He also reinforced lots of Republican talking points about the Senate bill. He seems to be operating under the belief that somehow if the Senate bill is not enacted, we will get a do over on health care.
Clarke spent most of their time passing blaming almost anyone else she could think of for the current mess (the Senate for passing a bad bill, the base for not showing up and letting the tea party crowd steal the show, the media for not reporting well, the Republicans for being mean, etc. etc.) Clarke and Weiner betrayed no sense whatsoever that they are now responsible if health care reform dies. Almost every word was about how other people have messed things up.
When the moderator (a local assemblyman, I think) asked for a show of hands, a slight majority was against passing the Senate bill as is. However, in the question period, the pro-Senate bill people were much more vocal. At least four people asked the Representatives to pass the Senate bill with increasing levels of urgency and anger "President Obama could have a bill on his desk on Wednesday morning". The pro-Senate bill group also cheered much more loudly.
Here were my main takeways:
1. House Dems (or at least Clarke and Weiner) don't seem to understand that not doing anything is not an option. Neither of them said anything remotely close to "we will pass health care reform this year".
2. Weiner and Clarke were both really upset that the Medicaid provisions would supposedly destroy the New York state budget. Although Weiner ranted about how the Senate bill was a give away to insurance companies, the Medicaid issues seems like it might be the only one that isn't negotiable.
3. On the other hand, nobody said anything about the excise tax as far as I can remember.
4. These people (perhaps because they are from safe districts) seem have no idea what an electoral disaster it will be if the Dems don't pass any serious health care reform.
5. House Dems are so mad at the Senate that it is clouding their political judgment.
6. Weiner was surprised that someone mentioned budget reconciliation. He suggested that he might be OK with this but sounded a bit skeptical because (a) he thought that some Democratic Senators wouldn't go for it and (b) House centrists don't want to take another politically costly vote on a reconciliation bill that might or might not survive the Senate.
7. Neither Clarke nor Weiner in the course of more than an hour suggested a single realistic plan for health care reform. Any practical ideas ("just pass the Senate bill" or "use budget reconciliation to fix the Senate bill" came from the audience). There is no plan as far as I can tell. Frankly, it didn't even sound like Weiner or Clarke are even trying.
8. It is really, really important that all of the Democrats in the House hear from their constituents that they are to blame if nothing happens. Because right now, I don't think that these people get it. If you want comprehensive health care reform, call your Rep now!
Here it's important to keep in mind the most important reason why we need to pass some comprehensive bill or other. Trying to pass comprehensive health care legislation and failing results in your party being too terrified to approach the issue again for 15 years, and then crawling back with a proposal half as strong as what they had the last time. That's where we are now, relative to 1994. If you pass a flawed proposal, by contrast, you can spend the next couple decades slowly improving it until it's awesome. Social Security, as originally passed, was deeply unfair to women and blacks. But we fixed those problems, and now we have a program that benefits them tremendously.
It's horrible foolishness to think that we'll get a better bill sometime soon if we lose this one. In a spin war over why the bill died, the progressive message "It was too conservative" just isn't going to beat the combined centrist and conservative message "It was too liberal", because centrists and conservatives together have way more media resources than progressives. Most people (including Democratic moderates whose votes you need) are going to think the bill failed because it was too liberal, and reject ambitious progressive proposals on health care and possibly other issues. And then you wait at least a decade for Democrats to work up the courage to try again.
So the thing you have to do is pass the bill. Mainstream conservatives have to be really careful about attacking existent universal social programs (Republicans can't explicitly hate on Social Security and Medicare -- they have to be sneaky and pretend they're saving the programs) and centrists worship things that are victorious. This moves the landscape of public debate left, and enables you to pass further good stuff in the future. If you don't like the bill that much at present, think about the good stuff you can do with these spoils of victory.
It's that, or crawling around for 15 years with nothing while pundits laugh and Republicans laugh hardest about the stupidity of being an ambitious progressive health reformer. I think Grijalva and Weiner will eventually get on board with the Senate bill plus a reconciliation vehicle and save us from that circle of hell. But if they don't, they deserve to be in the one below it, where they and Ralph Nader are chewed for eternity for bringing horrible disaster on all of us in a fit of shortsighted anger.