Bill Moyers Journal: Taibbi and Kuttner on the Health Care Bill
Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi and The American Prospect's Robert Kuttner joined Bill Moyers to discuss the health care bill which appears to be on its way to passing the Senate now and what lessons the Obama administration took away from Bill Clinton's failure to get a health care bill passed. Robert Kuttner explained why even though he thinks this is an awful bill, if he were in the Senate, he'd vote for it. You can watch the rest of the interview at Bill Moyers Journal.
BILL MOYERS: Let's start with some news. Some of the big insurance companies, Well Point, Cigna, United Health, all surged to a 52 week high in their share prices this week when it was clear there'd be no public option in the health care bill going through Congress right now. What does that tell you, Matt?
MATT TAIBBI: Well, I think what most people should take away from this is that the massive subsidies for health insurance companies have been preserved while it's also expanded their customer base because there's an individual mandate in the bill that's going to provide all these companies with the, you know, 25 or 30 million new people who are going to be paying for health insurance. So, it's, obviously, a huge boon to that industry. And I think Wall Street correctly read what the health care effort is all about.
ROBERT KUTTNER: Rahm Emanuel, the President's Chief of Staff, was Bill Clinton's Political Director. And Rahm Emanuel's take away from Bill Clinton's failure to get health insurance passed was 'don't get on the wrong side of the insurance companies.' So their strategy was cut a deal with the insurance companies, the drug industry going in. And the deal was, we're not going to attack your customer base, we're going to subsidize a new customer base. And that script was pre-cooked so it's not surprising that this is what comes out the other side.
BILL MOYERS: So are you saying that this, what some call a sweetheart deal between the pharmaceutical industry and the White House, done many months ago before this fight really began, was because the drug company money in the Democratic Party?
ROBERT KUTTNER: Well, it's two things. Part of it was we need to do whatever it takes to get a bill. Never mind whether it's a really good bill, let's get a bill passed so we can claim that we solved health insurance. Secondly, let's get the drug industry and the insurance industry either supporting us or not actively opposing us. So that there was some skirmishing around the details, but the deal going in was that the administration, drug companies, insurance companies are on the same team. Now, that's one way to get legislation, it's not a way to transform the health system. Once the White House made this deal with the insurance companies, the public option was never going to be anything more than a fig leaf. And over the summer and the fall, it got whittled down, whittled down, whittled down to almost nothing and now it's really nothing.
MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, and this was Howard Dean's point this week was that this individual mandate that's going to force people to become customers of private health insurance companies, the Democrats are going to end up owning that policy and it's going to be extremely unpopular and it's going to be theirs for a generation. It's going to be an albatross around the neck of this party.
ROBERT KUTTNER: Think about it, the difference between social insurance and an individual mandate is this. Social insurance everybody pays for it through their taxes, so you don't think of Social Security as a compulsory individual mandate. You think of it as a benefit, as a protection that your government provides. But an individual mandate is an order to you to go out and buy some product from some private profit-making company, that in the case of a lot of moderate income people, you can't afford to buy. And the shell game here is that the affordable policies are either very high deductibles and co-pays, so you can afford the monthly premiums but then when you get sick, you have to pay a small fortune out of pocket before the coverage kicks in. Or if the coverage is decent, the premiums are unaffordable. And so here's the government doing the bidding of the private industry coercing people to buy profit-making products that maybe they can't afford and they call it health reform.
BILL MOYERS: So explain this to the visitor from Mars. I mean, just this week, the Washington Post and ABC News had a poll showing that the American public supports the Medicare buy-in that-
ROBERT KUTTNER: Right.
BILL MOYERS: By a margin of some 30 points-
ROBERT KUTTNER: Right.
BILL MOYERS: And yet, it went down like a lead balloon.
ROBERT KUTTNER: Look, there are two ways, if you're the President of the United States sizing up a situation like this that you can try and create reform. One is to say, well, the interest groups are so powerful that the only thing I can do is I can work with them and move the ball a few yards, get some incremental reform, hope it turns into something better. The other way you can do it is to try to rally the people against the special interests and play on the fact that the insurance industry, the drug industry, are not going to win any popularity contests with the American people. And you, as the president, be the champion of the people against the special interests. That's the course that Obama's chosen not to pursue.
MATT TAIBBI: And I think, you know, a lot of what the Democrats are doing, they don't make sense if you look at it from an objective point of view, but if you look at it as a business strategy- if you look at the Democratic Party as a business, and their job is basically to raise campaign funds and to stay in power, what they do makes a lot of sense. They have a consistent strategy which involves negotiating a fine line between sentiment on the left and the interests of the industries that they're out there to protect. And they've always, kind of, taken that fork in the road and gone right down the middle of the line. And they're doing that with this health care bill and that's- it's consistent.
BILL MOYERS: If you were Republican, wouldn't you feel right now that it's going your way? I mean, the Democrats control the White House, they control Congress and the only thing they've been able to make happen this year is escalate the war in Afghanistan.
MATT TAIBBI: The Democrats are in exactly the same position that the Republicans were in once the Iraq War turned bad. All the Republicans have to do now is sit back and watch the Democrats make a disaster out of this health care effort. And they're going to gain political capital whether they're in the right or not. And I think it's a very- it's a terrible thing for the party.
BILL MOYERS: Some of your progressive readers and colleagues are going to take issue with you, of course, because there are progressive figures like John Podesta, of the Center for American Progress, Kevin Drum, and others who say, look, this bill has its real problems. It's got some real toxic qualities to it. But it's not as bad as Kuttner and Taibbi think. This is the Senate bill, it covers 30 million-plus more people, has subsidies for low-income families, spreads the risk, lowers some premium costs, creates some exchanges where people can shop for better coverage and prices. You know, don't be too hard on it.
ROBERT KUTTNER: Well, my co-editor, Paul Starr in the editorial in the current issue of "The Prospect" takes exactly that position. Don't be too hard on Obama, he inherited a really difficult situation and we're making incremental progress. If we could've done better we would've. Paul and I disagree about that. I mean, I think one of the challenges of a president is to transform the reality rather than just work within its parameters. I think the other problem, frankly, is that those of us who consider ourselves progressives invested so much in this remarkable figure, Barack Obama. And we read our own hopes into him. We saw him as a potentially great president. We saw this as a potentially transformative moment, I certainly did, where he could've chosen to be the kind of president Roosevelt was. And it turns out that's not who is characteralogically and that's not how he chose to play the moment.
BILL MOYERS: Yes or no. If you were a senator, would you vote for this Senate health care bill?
MATT TAIBBI: No.
BILL MOYERS: Bob?
ROBERT KUTTNER: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Why? You just said it's designed to enhance the fortunes of the industry.
ROBERT KUTTNER: Well, it's so far from what I think is necessary that I don't think it's a it's a good bill. But I think if it goes down, just because of the optics of the situation and the way the Republicans have framed this as a make or break moment for President Obama, it will make it easier for the Republicans to take control of Congress in 2010. It will make Obama even more gun-shy about promoting reform. It will create even more political paralysis. It will embolden the republicans to block what this President is trying to do, some of which is good, at every turn. So I would hold my nose and vote for it.
MATT TAIBBI: My feeling on it is just looking more concretely at the health care problem, this is a bill that to me doesn't address the two biggest problems with the health care crisis. One is the inefficiency and the bureaucracy and the paperwork which it doesn't address at all. It doesn't standardize anything. The other is price, which has now fallen by the wayside because there's no going to be no public option that's going to drive down prices. So, if a health care bill that doesn't address those two problems, to me, is- and additionally is a big give-away to the insurance companies because it provides, you know- it creates this new customer base, it's something I personally couldn't vote for.
BILL MOYERS: Aren't you saying that in order to save the Democratic President and the Democratic Party in 2010 and 2012 you have to have a really rotten health insurance bill?
ROBERT KUTTNER: Well, when you come down to one pivotal moment where a bill is before Congress and the administration has staked the entire presidency on this bill and you're a progressive Democrat are you going to vote for it or not? Let me put it this way, if I were literally in the position that Joe Lieberman is in and it was up to me to determine whether this bill live or die, I would hold my nose and vote for it even though I have been a fierce critic of the path this administration has taken.