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First thoughts: The public omission?

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** The public omission? Are we the only ones who aren't surprised by today's headlines -- in today's New York Times, Washington Post, and elsewhere -- that the Obama administration isn't 100% wedded to public/government option? Truth is, this is where we've been headed all along. It began months ago when President Obama refused to make a public health insurance option a non-negotiable part of any reform. But over the weekend, the administration was no longer being so coy about its intentions. Obama said this at his town hall on Saturday in Colorado: "The public option, where we have it or we don't have it, is not the entirety of health-care reform." Then the president wrote a 1,200-word New York Times op-ed on the health-care debate, and it didn't mention the words "public option" in it ANYWHERE. Finally, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said on Sunday that the public option was "not the essential element" for reform and raised the prospect of an insurance co-op.

*** Barack and Baucus: Of course, perhaps the biggest clue about the White House's intentions came in Montana on Friday, when Obama mentioned the name of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus 10 times. To us, this was just more evidence that the eventual legislation is going to look A WHOLE LOT more like the Senate Finance bill (whenever that comes out) than any other committee's legislation. And all signs are pointing to the Finance bill having a co-op instead of a public/government option. We point you to a back-and-forth last week between the White House press corps and Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, when he was asked what PhRMA got in return for its $80 billion in pledged cuts. Gibbs wouldn't say, but said the Finance Committee bill would reflect the deal. No wonder Charlie Rangel was so grumpy on "Meet the Press" yesterday. Reality is setting in for some of these House Dems that their efforts, while admirable, are not the be-all-end-all of health care.

*** Messina pushes back (a tad): Deputy White House chief of staff Jim Messina -- who just happens to be Baucus' old chief of staff -- sent a message yesterday to some leading progressive/liberal leaders, arguing that the media were overhyping any position switch on a public option. "Nothing has changed," he said. "POTUS has always said that what is essential is that health insurance reform must lower costs, ensure that there are affordable options for all Americans and increase choice and competition. He believes the public option is the best way to achieve those goals." But read that last sentence carefully: The White House is suggesting that a public option isn't the ONLY WAY to achieve those goals, just the "best way." Another way, some believe, is via a non-profit co-op.

*** Explaining the co-op: So just what is a co-op? Is it like a condo association, except with more rules? A credit union? A farm co-op? Blue Cross, Blue Shield? Land O Lakes Butter? Ace Hardware? Those are just SOME of the comparisons proponents have tried to use. The problem is that there just isn't an easy explanation as to what the co-op is, and that's potentially problematic in this political environment. Why? Because as we've learned: In politics, when something isn't defined pro-actively very well, opponents can sometimes define it first. We know what it's NOT supposed to be, and that's a government-run insurance program, a la Medicare. So what is it? Here's the best explanations we've come up with. For starters, a REAL world example is Group Health in Seattle, where individuals can join, as well as businesses. Group Health's physicians are paid a salary and can earn bonuses of up to 20% for high-quality performance. Unlike most doctors, who are paid by the visit or procedure, they have little incentive to churn patients through and order unnecessary tests and operations. 

*** Conrad's words: So, on its best day, the overall goal of a co-op is to weaken the fee-for-service system that dominates the health care industry. Also, read this co-op explanation DIRECTLY from Kent Conrad, who is its biggest advocate on the Senate Finance Committee. "We have seen cooperatives thrive in this country, from the rural cooperatives we are familiar with in North Dakota to major companies including Land O' Lakes, Ace Hardware, and the outdoor-retailer REI. And we have a working model with Group Health, a Washington state-based health care cooperative with more than 500,000 members."

*** At the VFW convention: Expect President Obama to talk about health-care reform briefly when he addresses the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Phoenix at 1:00 pm ET. Of course, he'll also discuss national security and foreign policy. But we're told not to expect any new policy announcements regarding Iraq or Afghanistan.

*** Battle for the governor's mansion: Two weeks ago, we took a stab at the 2010 House races, and last week we examined next year's Senate contests. Today, we take a look at the 2010 gubernatorial races. While they won't determine control of Congress, these contests will play a huge role in the politically charged redistricting process that will begin in 2011. Right now, Democrats have a 28-22 advantage over Republicans in the control of state governorships. In 2010, a whopping 37 states will hold gubernatorial contests -- 19 held by Democrats and 18 by Republicans. More importantly, due to term limits or retirements, about half of these are open seats, meaning excellent opportunities for the other party to take control of the governor's mansion. Republicans have great shots at picking up seats in red states like Kansas, Tennessee, and Wyoming, while top Democratic targets are in California, Hawaii, and Minnesota. 

*** Deeds vs. McDonnell: But let's not forget about the two gubernatorial races this year -- in New Jersey and Virginia -- which take place in less than 80 days from now. And in Virginia, a brand-new Washington Post poll shows Bob McDonnell (R) leading Creigh Deeds (D) by seven percentage points, 47%-40%, and even MORE among likely voters. Perhaps the main reason why McDonnell is ahead: He's almost tied with Deeds in Northern Virginia. As Tim Kaine, Jim Webb, and Barack Obama proved, a Democrat needs to win NoVA by at least a 60%-40% split to carry Virginia statewide. According to the poll, McDonnell also is overperforming among independents. But this could very well be the most interesting finding in the entire poll: 34% said that Obama's endorsement of Deeds would make them more likely to vote for the Democrat, versus an equal 34% who said it would make them less likely to vote for him; 30% said it made no difference. It suggests that Obama's pull in the swing state of Virginia isn't as strong as it was a year ago…

*** No one's paying attention -- yet: But here's another number in the poll that shouldn't be missed: 51% (a majority) say they aren't following the race very closely or at all. By comparison, in Sept. '05, 59% said they were following the Kaine-Kilgore match-up closely and in August '01, 60% said they were following Warner-Earley pretty closely. Deeds also should feel pretty good about the fact that the state's three leading Dems have a majority approving of their job, starting with Mark Warner at 67%, Tim Kaine at 56%, and Jim Webb at 51%. The Kaine number is slightly surprising, since he's had to be so partisan as DNC chair. So to stay over 50% in a swing state is a pretty good feat. And don't miss the party I.D. question toward the end of the survey. Just 27% of likely voters were self-I.D. Democrats -- the lowest recorded number on the Post's chart dating back to 1989. Could this be an indication that Deeds has done VERY little to motivate his base? So while the president may be seen as a net neutral player in the polling, his popularity with the Dem base will mean Deeds will be leaning on him heavily. By the way, the Republican self-I.D. number of 34% among likely voters is the highest recorded number on this Post chart since Oct. '05, just before Election Day. Clearly, the Republican base is excited about an opportunity to win.

*** Move over Specter vs. Sestak: Today, deep in the heart of Texas, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) officially announces her bid for governor with a five-day, 19-stop "Texas Can Do Better" tour in a race that could be the marquee primary race of 2010. She kicks things off in La Marque, TX at 9:00 am ET, and will take a shot at her primary opponent, incumbent Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R). "Let me start by saying this about Rick Perry: He's a dedicated public servant; I know he loves Texas," she will say, according to advanced excerpts of her remarks. "But now he's trying to stay too long -- 14 years, maybe longer. And after ten Perry years, where are we? Property taxes? Highest in the country. State debt? Doubled." Also, the more moderate Hutchison will call for expanding the GOP beyond its base. "For the last decade, the Republican Party in Texas has been shrinking. We're losing elections we used to win easily. In Austin, we've gone from 88 seats in the House to 76 -- just two away from losing the Texas house. As Republicans, we can continue down the road of shrinking majorities. Or we can inspire, unite, and grow our party."  

*** KBH's crossover move: To win this primary, Hutchison is counting on something that isn't easy for ANY Republican to count on in a primary: crossover Dem support. Hutchison needs to hope that enough Dems and indies are convinced that the winner of the GOP primary will be governor that they'll participate. But what could hurt that strategy? If enough Dems start believing that Perry is actually beatable in a general. To date, by the way, Texas Democrats have not been blown away by ex-Bush administration Australia Ambassador Tom Schieffer's campaign (yes, he's the brother of CBS' Bob Schieffer). On paper, he looks like the perfect candidate, but it could be Hutchison is sucking up resources Schieffer could count on if Perry were the perceived foe.

Countdown to Election Day 2009: 78 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 442 days

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