There's a scene in an episode of the television show The West Wing where the fictional President Bartlet is meeting with a group of elementary schoolchildren. An adorable little girl gets to ask him the first question, which is: "What is your most favorite part of being president?"
Bartlet answers: "I'm doing it right now," and kisses the girl on the forehead.
Of course, Bartlet wouldn't have had to face accusations of "President gives Kiss of Death!" from lunatic opponents the next day. Because, in his fictional world, they didn't exist.
Perhaps President Obama thought his address to the nation's schoolchildren would generate a similar touching moment with parents across the country. But instead, it has become yet another target for his political opponents (as if they didn't already have enough fronts in this battle). Sadly, the event has become mired in manufactured controversy from the right, with typical sky-is-falling rhetoric about how the evil, evil man who occupies the Oval Office is going to brainwash all of our children into being either: (a) Marxists, (b) Socialists, (c) Obamamaniacs, or (d) all of the above. No matter that presidents have been doing this sort of heartwarming photo-oppery since the time of Kennedy (do some pushups, children!), and that Saint Ronald of Reagan actually used such an address to children to hawk his tax cuts. No, none of this matters, because... well, to tell you the truth, it's hard to figure what some of these people are thinking.
The man, whether you voted for him or not, is President of the United States of America. The office itself deserves more respect than this, it would seem. The speech he's going to give is going to be online a day before he gives it. Parents can read the speech for themselves, and I would bet my bottom dollar that there will be absolutely zero politics in it -- unless "doing your homework" has become some sort of Democratic plot against the youth of America.
The White House press secretary was correct when he called this part of the political "silly season." I mean... sheesh.
This silly season, however, is fast coming to an end. Not that silliness will not abound next week or anything, but at least it'll have to compete with the serious business of getting something done in Washington (which resumes after a five-week break of doing nothing, which is what begat the silly season in the first place). In other words, Congress will go back to work. Until their next two-week vacation, that is.
President Obama himself will lead this return to seriousness, it should be noted. After he turns all of America's schoolkids into "Yes we can!" zombies (or whatever the right wing cranks are saying now), Obama will be giving a primetime speech to a joint session of Congress. Call it his Second Official "This Is Not A State Of The Union" Speech, if you will.
All kidding aside, this is indeed a bold move. So bold, one might wish he had done so around three months ago (sigh). But, as Obama keeps reminding us, we must look to the future and not back, so let's not get into that for now. Obama has seen his polls take a dive in the last two months, and this can be directly traced to his handling of healthcare reform. It seems he has finally -- finally -- realized this, and is now going to get specific about what he wants to see in the final legislation. This has caused a sense of worry and unease across the political spectrum from far left to far right. What will he say? Where will he draw a line in the sand? Will he defend the public option, or throw it overboard? With whom is he going to pick a fight -- Progressive Democrats or Blue Dog Democrats? Or even (gasp!), for once, actual Republicans?
We're all going to have to wait until the middle of next week to find out. Anything you read right now in the press is nothing but a rumor, keep in mind -- we won't know for sure until Wednesday. But Obama should be commended for finally stepping up to the giant bully pulpit, and for actually getting involved in the details. And, of course, for setting a definite date for when the 2009 silly season will end.
Before I actually hand out this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award, we've got to acknowledge President Obama here. But an actual MIDOTW award will have to wait until next week, after we hear exactly what he has to say. For now, though, an Honorable Mention is justified, for Obama finally realizing that he can either join in the fray and attempt to lead, or watch his poll ratings continue to sink as more and more of his base becomes seriously disillusioned with him.
Also winning an Honorable Mention this week is Senator Al Franken, who shows just who the clowns truly are, by his masterful and human defusing of anti-healthcare-reform public disruption. Anyone disgusted at the whole town hall situation this summer should really check out the video of Senator Franken showing us all how it should be done.
We have two winners of the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award this week, one for historic reasons and one for quite recent action.
Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat from Ohio, is a populist type of guy. He could end up being one of the greats of the Senate (Paul Wellstone springs to mind), for his principled standing up for the rights of average working Americans against the forces arrayed against them. But his most principled stance hasn't gotten a lot of media attention, even though you'd think it would. Which is why this column hasn't noticed it until now, I have to say (in apology for this being a "historic" award).
Sherrod Brown is the only United States Senator (at least, that this column is aware of) to publicly refuse the taxpayer-funded healthcare insurance which is provided to him for free with his job. He's been in the House and Senate for 16 years, and has never accepted it while serving. He buys the coverage out of his own pocket, instead. And he will not accept his free government-paid-for Senate insurance -- until there is a public option for everyone in Ohio, and indeed, everyone in America.
That is being true to your principles. And, no matter if it didn't happen last week, Sherrod Brown has earned a MIDOTW award for showing he's the only Senator who has put his constituents first in such a manner. Well done, Senator, well done.
Also winning the coveted MIDOTW award this week is Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Politico is reporting that Pelosi may be the public option's best champion on the Hill right now. Their headline says it all: "Nancy Pelosi: No public option, no bill." Pelosi is quoted in the article as saying:
"President Obama has said that a public option will keep the insurance companies honest. If someone has a better idea for promoting competition and reducing health care costs, they should put it on the table. But for the past month, opponents of health insurance reform have demonstrated that they are afraid of the facts. They have only offered distortions, distractions and misrepresentations to try to kill this historic legislation. A bill without a strong public option will not pass the House. Eliminating the public option would be a major victory for the insurance companies who have rationed care, increased premiums and denied coverage."
For that quote alone, she earns her MIDOTW award. This is the way things are supposed to work. The Senate is designed to pass legislation more slowly. But their feet are supposed to be held to the fire by the closer-to-their-constituents House. It is good to see Nancy Pelosi doing such a good job in her role in this fight.
Congratulations to both our Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week winners this week. This column salutes you both, and (as always) invites our readers to do the same.
Over in the Senate, however, the public plan just lost another Democratic vote. Senator Blanche Lincoln from Arkansas, who has accepted bagsful of money from the health industry (no surprise there), recently came out and said she'd vote against the public option, reversing her earlier position of lukewarm support for it.
Roll Call has the story. The breakout quote from Lincoln: "I would not support a solely government-funded public option. We can't afford that."
This one is pretty self-explanatory, actually, and nothing more needs be said. For her flip-floppitude, Senator Lincoln is our Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week.
Be sure to let her know how you feel, especially if you hail from her state.
[Contact Senator Blanche Lincoln on her Senate contact page to let her know what you think of her actions.]
Volume 92 (9/4/09)
Because we're kind of all waiting to hear President Obama's own talking points next week, the Talking Points portion of the program is going on vacation. Or, more like, playing hooky and going to a baseball game.
Because, instead of our normal fare, I thought it was time to review how far we still have to go in the fight for healthcare reform. Because this is pretty boring "civics class" type of stuff, I will be using an extended baseball metaphor in a desperate ploy to retain your interest.
In this metaphorical baseball game, the Senate (being the harder of the two) will play the part of the "home team" and bat last -- although in reality, the order which the House and Senate vote could be interchangeable. Hey, whaddya want, it's a metaphor!
[That last line, in the flavor of things, should really be read in your head in either a Boston or a Brooklyn accent.]
We resume coverage of our game in the bottom of the sixth inning, because that's about where I feel like we are at in this fight (I mean no disrespect by calling it a "game," I should add). In some ways, we've just finished the "seventh inning stretch," but I couldn't use that because we've really got further than that left to go.
Bottom of the 6th
A bill finally makes it through the final Senate committee, and bills in both houses are somehow (the process can vary) melded into a single bill for each House. This could involve "calling the game for rain" and starting all over again, if Obama (as is being rumored) introduces his own legislation, which would assumably have to be passed by the four committees which have already managed to pass their own bills. This question will be answered next Wednesday, when Obama speaks to Congress and the nation. But, one way or another, the committees are finally done with their work, and the bills move to the floor.
Top of the 7th
The House votes in full on a single bill. The bill passes. This could happen very soon after Congress reconvenes, since it sounds like Nancy Pelosi is intending a full court press on the issue... oh, wait, that's basketball, never mind.
Ahem. So the top of the 7th might actually happen before the bottom of the 6th ends. Now I just feel the metaphor is getting away from me, so I will quickly move on. The legislation in the House will either pass with a huge majority, or will squeak by with the loss of either the Blue Dogs or the Progressives.
Bottom of the 7th
The Senate moves a single bill to the floor and votes on it. It is looking more and more likely that this will happen through "budget reconciliation" (call it the "infield fly rule," perhaps), where only 50 votes (and Vice President Biden) are necessary for passage. Unless, of course, Obama waters everything down in a final push to get 60 votes on some sort of "reform" bill. Either way, the bill passes the Senate. The only question of "bipartisanship" will be: Will Obama get one Republican vote, or none?
The 8th inning
This is where the real fight is going to happen -- the conference committee. Relief pitchers will be called up from the bench. Lineups will be shuffled around. Because the real inside-the-Beltway battle over what -- exactly -- will be in healthcare reform legislation will take place here and now.
The first stage of this (the "top" of the inning, if you will) is who will be named to such a "conference committee" (these are set up between the House and the Senate, to iron out differences in individual pieces of legislation, and have no set membership). Because it is all but guaranteed that the bills which the two houses will be different at this point. Meaning each house names a handful of members to sit in the conference committee to hash it all out, into a single bill which both houses must then vote on. And this battle will be defined by who is on this committee. If Progressive House members are named, the bill will be more to their liking in the end. If it is packed with Blue Dogs, then the bill will be shaped as they desire.
The "bottom" of this inning is them coming to agreement on a compromise piece of legislation, which everyone thinks has a decent shot at passage in both houses. This can be a frustrating and time-consuming thing, and a lot of the negotiations for what is cut and what is included will actually happen outside the public eye.
Which is why it gets a whole inning to itself -- because it's that important. No matter what bill has passed either the House or the Senate at this point, the conference committee can strip anything it likes out, and stuff in anything it likes. It would behoove us all to please keep this in mind when cheering home runs during earlier innings.
But eventually (hopefully -- this is truly the most dangerous place in terms of legislation dying altogether), a single piece of legislation is produced. The committee votes on it, and it returns to each house.
Top of the 9th
The House must then pass whatever comes out of the conference committee -- without making any changes to it. This is always tricky, since introducing amendments in the House is a lot easier. Defeating a raft of Republican amendments will be crucial, at this point.
Bottom of the 9th
The Senate must now pass exactly what the House passed. At this point, hopefully, the momentum for passage will be so fierce that it will indeed pass the Senate again, even though our "Casey At The Bat" is actually named Harry Reid.
The bill arrives on President Obama's desk. He can either sign it at this point, and declare "Game over -- a win for the Democrats!" or he can veto it and send it back to certain death for 2009. This is not likely to happen, no matter what the bill says, at this point. Obama has invested so much of his political future on passing something this year that I simply can't see him "going into extra innings," and sending the bill back to Congress because he's not satisfied with it.
So that's how the rest of the "game" looks to me. We've got a long way to go, people, so let's keep that in mind. Now get out there and give 110 percent!
Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground
Cross-posted at: The Huffington Post
-- Chris Weigant