Ignore all the posturing and pushing and posing of this hot August recess. If you’re interested in health-care reform, get out your red pen and circle this date: September 15. That’s likely to be the crucial day in determining the course of the battle.
It’s been an auspicious day in years past. On September 15, 1812, Napoleon marched on Moscow. On September 15, 1835, Charles Darwin landed at the Galapagos Islands. On September 15, 1959, Khrushchev arrived in America, and on that day two years later Hurricane Carla arrived on the Texas Gulf Coast. And just last year, September 15, 2008, Barack Obama and John McCain were essentially tied in the Gallup Poll (47 to 45 in favor of Obama), Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, and McCain said, “The fundamentals of the economy are strong.” That one day changed the course of the rest of the presidential campaign.
Obama has invested an extraordinary amount of time and attention in Sen. Charles Grassley. I’m not feeling the bipartisan love from Grandpa Twitter.
It may be that September 15, 2009, shapes the course of the rest of the health-care fight as well. Because that is the deadline Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) has set for his Finance Committee to come to an agreement on a bipartisan health-overhaul bill.
I’ve got to tell you I’m skeptical. Baucus, like Pres. Obama, has invested an extraordinary amount of time, attention, and credibility in Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA). Grassley hasn’t exactly met them halfway. Heck, he hasn’t even met them on his own 10-yard line. When Sarah Palin was ranting about “death panels,” Grassley should have set the record straight and described her views as fellow GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) did: “Nuts.” Not Grassley. He said, “You have every right to fear. … We should not have a government program that determines if you're going to pull the plug on Grandma.”
Grassley has also falsely claimed that the House version of health-care reform would deny cancer treatment to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), and he told Fox News that Pres. Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi were “intellectually dishonest.” I’m not feeling the bipartisan love from Grandpa Twitter.
In his thoughtful analysis, Eric Alterman argues that President Obama has never been under any illusions about Washington Republicans’ intransigence, and that his call for bipartisanship is a win-win: Either he will win enough Republicans to claim a bipartisan victory or he will have justification for going it alone. The president seemed to be pursuing that strategy today, telling radio talk-show host Michael Smerconish, “As far as negotiations with Republicans, my attitude has always been, let's see if we can get this done with some consensus. … There are a bunch of Republicans out there who have been working very constructively. One of them, Olympia Snowe in Maine, she's been dedicated on this. Chuck Grassley, Mike Enzi, others—they've been meeting in the Senate Finance Committee. I want to give them a chance to work through these processes.”
The crucial two words in the president’s statement are “let’s see.” So far, we ain’t seen much. In the four committees that have passed versions of health-care reform, the Democrats have accepted a total of 183 GOP amendments. But that generosity has yet to earn them a single Republican vote in single committee. Zilch. Zero. Nada. Bupkes.
Like the myth of the unicorn, or Sasquatch, or a humble political pundit, the myth of the reasonable, responsible, rational Republican persists. High-minded media elites and goody-goody Democrats want to believe in it; they need to believe in it, and in the face of all evidence, they persist in that belief.
On September 15, we will know. Perhaps Max Baucus’ remarkable patience and bipartisan outreach will be rewarded by Sens. Grassley and Snowe and Enzi, and we will have strong health-care reform supported by both parties—something along the lines of what Sen. Baucus outlined in a white paper on November 12, 2008. But perhaps not. Perhaps instead the bipartisan effort will yield nothing—or reforms so tepid as to be nearly useless. In that case Democrats will be forced to go it alone, possibly using the budget reconciliation process, with its lower, 50-vote hurdle, to pass large portions of reform, and then fighting a GOP filibuster on the parts that can’t be dealt with in reconciliation.
Either way, we will know on September 15.
Paul Begala is a CNN political contributor and a research professor at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute. He was a senior strategist for the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign and served as counselor to President Clinton in the White House.