Democrats on healthcare: going it alone or not?

The White House appears to be sending out conflicting messages, but that could be intentional ambiguity designed to keep several options on the table.

J. Scott Applewhite/ AP/File
In this Aug. 4 file photo, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana, speaks to reporters after meeting with President Obama and other Democratic senators, outside the White House in Washington.

At first blush, it may seem the White House has been contradicting itself lately.

In The New York Times Wednesday, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel appeared to buttress the media’s assertion that Democrats are now prepared to go it alone in passing healthcare legislation.

“The Republican leadership,” he said, “has made a strategic decision that defeating President Obama’s healthcare proposal is more important for their political goals than solving the health insurance problems that Americans face every day.”

Yet White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Wednesday that media reports were wrong.

“We continue to be hopeful that we can get bipartisan support” for reform, said Mr. Gibbs, whose daily sparring with the press usually contains some version of “our strategy has not changed.”

In all likelihood, the two men are engaging in creative ambiguity, designed to send signals to multiple audiences – friend and foe – and keep options open as long as possible. After all, as Gibbs himself pointed out, it’s still August. Crunch time for passing reform by the end of the year is still months away. The longer the White House is able to keep its options open, the greater its chances of settling on a firm position that can pass both houses of Congress.

At least that’s the ideal prospect for an Obama administration that is still in its opening act. Chances are, it wasn’t part of Mr. Obama’s plan to watch his poll numbers steadily slide as opponents of reform have seized public attention.

But history has shown that Obama can change course on a dime. That was the case last month in the flap over the arrest of black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., when Obama first said police had “acted stupidly.” The White House had said he had no more to say, then Obama changed his mind and held his famous beer summit when he realized his comment had only inflamed the situation.

Of course, the Cambridge dustup isn’t healthcare reform, Obama’s top domestic priority. But the M.O. may end up being similar. Already, one report indicates that the White House is “rethinking” how it is selling reform, and that come September, Obama will put more emphasis on what his supporters see as the “moral imperative” of insuring the uninsured.

Late Wednesday, Obama was to speak to a conference call of progressive religious activists, perhaps test-driving the new moral emphasis.

Meanwhile, facts on the ground indicate that bipartisanship is not completely dead. Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and probably the most important congressional player on health reform at this point, said Wednesday that “bipartisan progress continues.” He noted that his bipartisan group of six committee negotiators will meet by telephone Thursday and that their staffs continue to meet.

Sen. Mike Enzi (R) of Wyoming, one of the six, also signaled continued willingness to work on legislation. In a column in USA Today, he touted the proposal for healthcare “cooperatives” – an alternative to the so-called “public option” of government-run health insurance that is anathema to Republicans and some Democrats.

Senator Enzi did so in the context of slamming the public option, which has emerged as a sine qua non of health reform for liberals, but at least he’s stopping short of decrying health insurance cooperatives as well.

When crunch time does arrive, the best-case scenario may be that the House passes reform containing the public option and the Senate passes a bill calling for creation of cooperatives – nonprofit entities that would give members bargaining power in the healthcare marketplace. Then the final negotiations would begin.

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