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Today's Health Care Handicapping

Matthew Continetti calls the administration's optimistic rhetoric about health care a ruse:

It is extremely unlikely that Pelosi will be able to corral the votes necessary to pass a modified Senate bill. The president seems to understand this; in his State of the Union address, he waited a half an hour before mentioning health care. The White House's top priority is a $100 billion jobs bill; once that passes, look for the administration to focus on education and energy. So why the happy talk? As long as the liberal base thinks health care reform could pass, they won't launch a full-scale revolt against the president and the Democratic leadership.

Well, maybe. Continetti asserts that the administration's "top priority" is a $100 billion jobs bill, but he provides no evidence. I would guess that the administration would rather have the biggest change in American social policy in a generation or more over a second jobs bill that's one-eighth the size of the jobs bill it passed last year. But of course I don't know that.

It's also possible that the administration is trying to fool the liberal base into thinking that health care is alive in order to prevent a "full-scale revolt," and never get around to making a push. That would be a pretty dumb strategy, given that the liberal base is going to wake one morning in November and realize that it's Election Day and health care never passed, and probably feel a bit miffed. Of course, you never know -- sometimes people in politics adopt really dumb strategies.

The deeper problem is that it's hard to tell if the current delay is a strategic pause designed to help health care regroup, as Jonathan Not Me suggests in his latest must-read, or a slow phase-out. As Yet Another Jonathan, political scientist Jonathan Bernstein, writes:

I think the problem is that the evidence fits two completely opposite stories.  Story one, the cheerful one for opponents of health care reform, is that the bill is dead, but that Democrats loath to disappoint supporters have decided to go through the motions of trying to find a Plan B, or C, or X, Y, Z.  Story two is the opposite.  Story two is that health care reform is moving along towards a successful conclusion (that is: pass and patch), but that everyone has decided that getting the negotiations out of the spotlight is a good idea.  That wouldn't, by the way, be unusual.  It may seem that health care reform dominated the political news from July through the middle of January, but that's not actually true; there were several (media) dead spots in which negotiations were taking place with little news leaking, or everyone sat around waiting for a CBO score, or the next action was scheduled but hadn't yet taken place.

Reporting isn't going to solve this one, because both stories have the same external appearance.  I continue to believe that Jonathan Chait has identified the correct logic here: Democrats are going to get attacked for it whether or not it passes, and the best defense is to point to actual benefits flowing from passed legislation.

I actually think reporting can help. Jonathan Not Me's reporting is picking up the fact that Obama and the Congressional leadership very much want to pass-and-patch fix. Either that, or there's an elaborate ruse involving large numbers of sources. The real question is whether enough members of Congress are on board, or can be brought on board.