Blame where blame is due

BLAME WHERE BLAME IS DUE…. Remember, late last year, there was something briefly called the “Team of Ten” in the Senate? Health care reform was close to coming together, but there were a handful of Democrats with key concerns over specific provisions, most notably the public option. Ten members — five from the center-right, five from the center-left — got together to work out a deal they could all live with.

The result was a pretty good deal: the group scuttled the public option, but agreed to expand Medicare eligibility, letting Americans over the age of 55 buy into the system.

Despite all of the controversies surrounding the reform plan, the Medicare plan was wildly popular. A Washington Post/ABC News poll in mid-December showed a 63% majority approved of the Medicare buy-in idea.

So, what happened? Joe Lieberman said he’d kill the entire health care reform effort unless the Medicare buy-in provision were removed. Left with no choice, Democrats complied.

Apropos of nothing, Ezra Klein reminds us of the episode, and what the electoral considerations might have been if Lieberman were a better senator.

This [Medicare buy-in] idea had a couple of different virtues: For one, it opened an effective and cheap program up to a group of Americans who often have the most trouble finding affordable insurance. For another, the Congressional Budget Office has said this policy would improve Medicare’s finances by bringing healthier, younger applicants into the risk pool. Oh, and it’s wildly popular with liberals, who want to see Medicare offered as an option to more people, and since Medicare is already up and running, it could’ve been implemented rapidly.

But Lieberman killed it. It was never really clear why. He’d been invited to the meetings where the compromise was developed, but he’d skipped them. He’d supported the idea when he ran for president with Al Gore, and he’d reaffirmed that support three months prior to its emergence in the health-care debate during an interview with the editorial board of the Connecticut Post. But now that it was on the table, he seemed to be groping for reasons to oppose it. About the best he managed was that it was “duplicative,” which was about as nonsensical a position as could be imagined. Nevertheless, he swore to filibuster the bill if the buy-in option was added. The proposal was duly removed.

I’d add one key detail Ezra didn’t mention. On Dec. 15, Lieberman talked to reporters about his position on health care, and admitted he opposed the Medicare buy-in because he heard liberals say good things about it. That is how the senator was making policy decisions.

Nevertheless, Ezra’s larger point — that health care reform would have been a bigger political win if Lieberman hadn’t been so petty and foolish — is compelling: “Liberals would’ve been a lot happier if they’d managed to add this to the law, and maybe more of them would’ve turned out to vote. Seniors might’ve been pleased to see Medicare’s finances improved, and many of the people who would’ve been helped by the new rule would’ve been, well, their children. The law could’ve begun delivering benefits earlier, and maybe that would’ve helped its popularity.”

Put together, could this have helped Dems withstand the electoral “wave”? It’s speculative, obviously, but it hardly strikes me as a stretch. At a minimum, I’d bet that the Affordable Care Act would be a lot more popular right now, which alone might have improved Dems’ chances in the midterms.