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First thoughts: Back to health care

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Back to health care: Anyone who has followed American politics over the past two years knows that Barack Obama has faced his fair share of challenges. Hillary Clinton. Jeremiah Wright. John McCain. Sarah Palin. Bill Ayers. Even the tax issues that helped sink his original HHS pick, Tom Daschle. And almost every time, he defeated or side-stepped those political dragons through his oratory and communication skills. But as he returns to Washington (although remains on a working vacation this week) and after Ted Kennedy was laid to rest on Saturday, President Obama has found so far that his communication skills -- just how many press conferences and media avails did he have this summer? -- haven't really worked on the tricky issue of health-care reform. His poll numbers have declined; House Blue Dog Democrats are hesitant; most Republicans aren't willing to cut any kind of deal; liberals have made the politically difficult public option the end-all, be-all of reform; and Max Baucus' Senate Finance Committee still hasn't produced a bill. In short, it was a brutal summer for the president; no wonder this week is still being called a "vacation" week by the White House.

*** Getting something done: But health care's fate will be decided this fall. And the smart C.W. is that reform will pass this year, although what that reform entails is anyone's guess. As John Harwood of CNBC and the New York Times writes, "…President Obama still has stronger prospects for achieving his health policy goals than surface impressions of the congressional recess indicate. He lags behind his own timetable for action, but remains ahead of presidential predecessors who pursued the same objective… 'They'll get something done,' predicted former Senator John B. Breaux of Louisiana, a Democrat… 'It'll be a major step.'" Yet getting something done increasingly looks like it will happen via reconciliation, which would require a simple majority in the Senate versus a filibuster-proof majority. And it also looks like it will get done without much help from Republicans. Chuck Grassley's recent comments, as well as Mike Enzi's weekend GOP radio address, really don't suggest that these guys are negotiating in good faith. But ask yourself this question: Do voters ever remember HOW legislation is passed, or do they simply remember if policy is enacted or NOT enacted? 

*** Filling Kennedy's seat: Getting something done also might require Democrats to get that 60th Senate vote back -- to make up for any Democratic defections. So filling Kennedy's seat quickly has become a priority for Democrats. As we pointed out last week, with Massachusetts Democrats holding nearly 90% of the House and Senate seats in its Legislature, they can certainly change the state's succession law. Here's one other development: Chris Dodd, Kennedy's closest friend in the Senate, is already talking up the possibility of Vicki Kennedy, who has earlier suggested that she isn't interested. "Whatever Vicki wants to do, I'm in her corner," Dodd said on Sunday. "She brings talent and ability to it, and to fill that spot I think is something the people of Massachusetts would welcome. We could certainly use her in the Senate." 

*** Naming names: So expect some public maneuverings this week. Whatever is changed in the Massachusetts law, it will ONLY affect the ability of the governor to appoint an INTERIM senator; the special election process will still happen in early January 2010. While many in Washington are pondering a Kennedy getting in (either Vicki or Joe), keep an eye on Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley. She could become the Emily's List candidate and raise a slew of money fast and could end up being – in a jumbled primary -- the frontrunner, unless Vicki decides to run. By the way, should the last Kennedy of her generation -- Jean Kennedy Smith -- be the no-brainer idea for an interim? 

*** Turning to Afghanistan: Of course, there are TWO items on the president's to-do list in September which could have a BIG impact on the trajectory of his presidency: 1) figuring out a legislative path to victory on health care and 2) deciding how many -- if any -- troops to send to Afghanistan. Part of the report is now in, per the BBC: "The report has yet not been published, but sources say Gen McChrystal sees protecting the Afghan people against the Taliban as the top priority. The report does not carry a direct call for increasing troop numbers. 'The situation in Afghanistan is serious, but success is achievable and demands a revised implementation strategy, commitment and resolve, and increased unity of effort,' Gen McChrystal said in the assessment. Copies of the document have been sent to Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and US Defence Secretary Robert Gates." Interestingly, how he proceeds on both health care and Afghanistan is as much a test of the loyalty of the Democratic base as it is about garnering the approval of the middle. 

*** What about Bob? One of the ironies of the Creigh Deeds-Bob McDonnell gubernatorial contest in Virginia is how it's been the Democrat talking about social issues like abortion, while the Republican has been mostly silent -- which has surprised those who have followed McDonnell's career. But that might now change after Sunday's Washington Post reported on McDonnell's 1989 graduate thesis at Pat Robertson's Regent University, in which he called feminism an enemy to the traditional family; said government policy should benefit married couples over "cohabitators, homosexuals, or fornicators"; and described a Supreme Court ruling legalizing contraception for unmarried couples as "illogical." The Deeds folks believe that highlighting McDonnell's social issues will help them with the two groups that McDonnell is doing fairly well with: independents and Northern Virginia voters.

*** How does McDonnell respond? McDonnell had to know this was coming, right? He gave this statement to the Post: "Virginians will judge me on my 18-year record as a legislator and Attorney General and the specific plans I have laid out for our future -- not on a decades-old academic paper I wrote as a student during the Reagan era and haven't thought about in years." More: "Like everybody, my views on many issues have changed as I have gotten older." Back in 2005, Tim Kaine knew the Republicans were going to seize on his past opposition to the death penalty. How he responded to the attack -- by invoking his Catholic faith -- helped him win that gubernatorial contest. Make no mistake, this Post story is going to polarize the electorate and fire up both bases, which is precisely what the Deeds camp needs in a state Obama won by seven percentage points. And while McDonnell's path to victory is about cutting Deeds' likely advantages in Northern Virginia, this story -- depending on how Deeds USES it -- is an opportunity for him to consolidate his base up North. But don't underestimate the ability of this story to fire up McDonnell's base. And it's a tradition in Virginia for the Washington Post to become a bogeyman, and this story could bring about some intense Post-bashing by conservatives.

*** The danger of being the favorite: With this story, and with Jon Corzine having perhaps his two best weeks (as revelations about Chris Christie's loans and traffic tickets have surfaced), we are beginning to see the prospect that Democrats could very well win one of these two gubernatorial races this year -- which would be a significant blow to Republicans who would love to sweep the two blue state races and use it as a recruiting and fundraising tool for 2010. Don't get us wrong: The GOP should still be considered favored to win both contests. But one of the pitfalls of being the favorite is that a loss becomes MUCH more painful than if you started out as the underdog. Election Day 2009, by the way, is just a little more than two months from now…

*** Another controversial appointment: Charlie Crist's decision on Friday to appoint his former chief of staff and campaign manager, George LeMieux, to fill Mel Martinez's Senate seat wasn't that surprising given that Crist is running for that very seat next year. Nevertheless, the move has allowed Democrats and primary opponent Marco Rubio to criticize the appointment as cronyism. Of course, as we've witnessed over the past several months, Democrats have had their fair share of controversial Senate appointments, too -- Roland Burris in Illinois, Michael Bennet in Colorado (who might now receive a primary challenge from Andrew Romanoff), Kirsten Gillibrand in New York, and Ted Kaufman in Delaware (which might be the most analogous appointment to the LeMieux's and which makes Democratic attacks on Crist a bit more disingenuous).

*** Wrangling over Rangel: Also last week, the press reported that powerful House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel (D) failed to disclose up to $500,000 in assets in 2007. Sorry, but how do you defend this? While she will have A LOT on her plate when Congress comes back next week, how Nancy Pelosi deals with Rangel and these revelations will be a real test for the Democratic speaker. Can Rangel stay a credible player in the health-care debate with this drip-drip hanging over his head? 

Countdown to Election Day 2009: 64 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 428 days

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