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Redemption for the White House

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Noam Scheiber is a senior editor of The New Republic.

Earlier this month, in a profile of White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, I identified two tactical mistakes the president had made while trying to pass health care reform.

The first was his extensive efforts to reach a bipartisan deal-in particular, allowing Montana Senator Max Baucus to negotiate with Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee through most of the summer before weighing in. The second was Obama's decision to attack insurance companies late last July after months of trying to co-opt them and other powerful groups. "At the same time the administration was bashing insurers, it sought to preserve deals with drugmakers and hospitals," I wrote. "The new attacks sent mixed signals not just to the interest groups, but also to the public at large."

Now that a comprehensive health care reform bill is on a glide path to enactment, it's worth asking if these criticisms still hold up. The answer, I think, is mostly yes, but with some important qualifications.

Start with bipartisanship. In retrospect, it appears that Baucus's Republican interlocutors--first Chuck Grassley, then Olympia Snowe--either were never really serious about cutting a deal or, more likely, came under so much pressure from their GOP colleagues that they couldn't cut one even if they wanted to. Whatever the case, the effort to court them was, as Emanuel's friend Paul Begala put it to me, akin to hunting unicorns beyond a certain point. 

In fairness, it was extremely difficult to discern Grassley's and Snowe's true intentions at the time--they certainly seemed sincere to people involved in the negotiations.(That's why I suspect the real obstacle was Republican pressure, not their own preferences.) Still, allowing the negotiations to continue through September rather than intervening in July, as Emanuel would have liked, exacted a real cost.

It's entirely possible that reform could have passed well before the special election in Massachusetts if not for this frustrating interlude. Which would have avoided the subsequent near-death experience and enabled the administration to move on to other business. For that matter, it might have even denied Scott Brown the oxygen for his upset victory (by taking the focus off process and allowing Democrats to defend the bill on the merits).

Having said that, I don't want to imply that bipartisanship per se was a bad idea, or even counterproductive in practice. The journalistic accounts of health care's resurrection--like this one in The New York Times and this one in Politico--seize on the president's bipartisan health care summit as a turning point, and I agree with them.