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Obama Falling Victim to Krugman's Law. Again.

August 16, 2009

Following President Obama's lead, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Sunday announced that a public option is "not the essential element" of the administration's health insurance reform push. Sadly, that development seems to signal that, as with the stimulus package, Obama has again fallen into a trap of his own making. In his quixotic quest for bipartisanship, the President is offering major concessions that will nonetheless earn him zero support from his "unreasoning, unappeasable" Republican opposition. Call it Krugman's Law.
The signs of President Obama's seeming walk-back of one of the pillars of his health care overhaul are multiplying. His Sunday New York Times op-ed fails to mention "public option," referring only to "a choice of high-quality, affordable coverage" and "quality, affordable options once we pass reform." That glaring omission followed his declaration at a Colorado town hall meeting yesterday:

"The public option - whether we have it or we don't have it - is not the entirety of health care reform. This is just one sliver of it, one aspect of it. And, by the way, it's both the right and the left that have become so fixated on this that they forget everything else."

For her part, Sebelius suggested the White House would yield to public option opponents on either side of the aisle, including key Senate Democrat Kent Conrad. So-called health insurance co-ops, which many doubt will result in either affordable insurance premiums or slow rising medical costs, could instead be an ingredient. As she told CNN's John King, "what's important is choice and competition," adding that, a public option "is not an essential element."
Unfortunately, we've been here before. As the concessions to obstructionist Republicans over the watered-down economic recovery package showed, appeasement is futile.
On January 5th, the Nobel prize-winning New York Times columnist Paul Krugman predicted what would come to pass in an early statement of Krugman's Law. For all of his goodwill, White House meetings, compromises and lofty rhetoric, the new President would - and did - get the back of the hand from Republicans:

"Look, Republicans are not going to come on board. Make 40% of the package tax cuts, they'll demand 100%. Then they'll start the thing about how you can't cut taxes on people who don't pay taxes (with only income taxes counting, of course) and demand that the plan focus on the affluent. Then they'll demand cuts in corporate taxes. And Mitch McConnell is already saying that state and local governments should get loans, not aid - which would undermine that part of the plan, too."

(Mercifully, President Obama did not yield on that last point. Merciful, that is, because the transfusion of federal cash to empty state coffers helped propel the dramatic improvement in second quarter GDP.)
And as I've previously suggested, there is also Krugman's Corollary. Fearful of a Democratic majority for years to come, Republicans are afraid not that Barack Obama's economic recovery and health care initiatives will fail, but that they might succeed. Or as Krugman himself put it on January 26th:

"Conservatives really, really don't want to see a second New Deal, and they certainly don't want to see government activism vindicated. So they are reaching for any stick they can find with which to beat proposals for increased government spending."

Of course, the health care and stimulus debates are not exactly analogous. In the House, Blue Dog Democrats threaten key components of the reform package. In the Senate, as evidenced by Conrad's proclamation that "the fact of the matter is there are not the votes in the United States Senate for a public option," Democrats are a stumbling block.
Which is why Barack Obama might do well to heed the advice of his foe, former Vice President Dick Cheney. As the minority vote getter George W. Bush prepared to assume the presidency, Cheney in December 2000 said on Face the Nation:

"As President-elect Bush has made very clear, he ran on a particular platform that was very carefully developed. It's his program, it's his agenda, and we have no intention at all of backing off of it. It's why we got elected."

On another occasion, Cheney put it more succinctly:

"We don't negotiate with ourselves."

Call it Cheney's Lemma.
UPDATE: Marc Ambinder reported later Sunday that one White House official claimed Sebelius "misspoke," while Linda Douglass, director of health reform communications for the administration, insisted President Obama still wanted to see a public option in the final bill. (Press secretary Robert Gibbs made a similar point.) Meanwhile, Nate Silver doubts Obama has the votes to pass it.

4 comments on “Obama Falling Victim to Krugman's Law. Again.”

  1. People have such a warped take on what’s going on here. The problem Obama has to deal with is your Kent Conrads, not Republicans. The Republicans, as a group, are simply irrelevant when it comes to this healthcare bill.

    Three particular points:

    1. As Howard Dean pointed out to Ron Reagan last week, the American people want bipartisanship. Bipartisanship is not a two-way relationship; the Democrats can provide it even if most or all Republicans the offers. Obama knows that.

    2. There are sometimes Republicans who accept the offers.

    3. Max Baucus and friends may be doing exactly what their voters want them to do. As Bill Clinton pointed out the other day, in his brutally convincing defense of himself on DADT, presidents are not dictators. I know we’ve gotten used to the idea that they might be, and, frankly, the members of the Senate and the House have gotten comfortable with rubber-stamping, but presidents are not dictators. Democratic Senators have to be respected by the president.

  2. If Krugman is right, I'd like to see all (65+) Republicans drop their Medicare and, therefore, Social Security. Now.

  3. "Bipartisanship is not a two-way relationship; the Democrats can provide it even if most or all Republicans the offers"
    This is a ridiculous statement.
    From wikipedia:
    "In a two-party system, bipartisan refers to any bill, act, resolution, or any other action of a political body in which both of the major political parties are in agreement. "
    What Barry Schwarz writes about is exactly "negotiating with oneself".
    It boggles the mind why Obama does it...

  4. For the uninsured or the under-insured universal coverage is the only option and that is what Obama and the Dims were elected to do.
    Anything less is total failure, and for Obama and the Dims to play word games, only making an obtuse situation even more convoluted, is not a great deal different than being pitched out of a hot air balloon that is out of gas, just temporarily make the crash a little less complete.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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