President Barack Obama flies into Montana this week and will hold a "town hall" meeting in a Bozeman airport hangar to talk about health care before talking with Montana's senior senator, Max Baucus. In the meantime, the Republicans are out in force, opposing health care reform at town hall meetings nationwide while the hapless Democrats fight among themselves over amorphous and confusing plans that give their allies little or nothing to rally around.
Few would deny the powerful oratory of President Obama and, without doubt, it will be on display for the national media once again when he speaks in Bozeman. But without a clear message, even great orators leave their audiences wondering what they're talking about. And if one thing is certain, it's that the Democrats have no clear message on health care.
As most folks who are following the issue know, the Democrats earlier promised to have their health bills ready by the time Congress adjourned for its summer recess. Had they done so, Obama wouldn't have a problem trying to rally supporters because he—and we—would know what was in the bills and where the Democrats were going to take us on health care reform.
But that didn't happen. In fact, it didn't come close to happening. To its credit, the House at least has a bill, HR 676, that includes such simple-to-understand concepts as single-payer, whereby every American citizen is covered for all health concerns regardless of their ability to pay or their pre-existing conditions. Such a plan, which is in existence in most other industrialized nations of the world, certainly could have been the mainstay of the Democrats' reform efforts and, considering that it is built on "everyone in, no one out" concept of health care, would have garnered significant support.
Unfortunately for all of us, Baucus decided to immediately dump the idea of single-payer, saying it was "off the table." Instead, Baucus insisted that he needed to craft a "uniquely American" solution and was so adamant that he had more than a dozen doctors and nurses arrested when they attempted to force his health care roundtable to include the single-payer option.
If arresting doctors and nurses brought national attention to Baucus, it also spurred closer examination of just how much money he and other members of his Finance Committee have taken from insurance companies who have a vested interest in seeing their business—insurance—remain between Americans and their health needs. In this regard, the Democrats probably did more damage to themselves than any amount of Republican needling could have accomplished. Why? Because Baucus winds up being the Senate's top recipient for such corporate largesse—the very same guy who insists he'll be the one to "reform" our health care system.
The results of the insurance industry's lobbying efforts, which are now estimated to have exceeded $1.5 million a day, have had a devastating effect on any hopes for progressive reform. Instead, we are offered the Baucus bill, still incomplete and incomprehensible, wherein the insurance industry remains in command. Even such mediocre offerings as a public insurance option were dumped once insurance lobbyists complained that government competition would drive them out of business.
Moreover, Baucus has insisted on reaching an agreement with his Republican counterparts under the thin guise of seeking a bipartisan bill that he claims will be "more sustainable." For years now we have heard nothing but whining from congressional Democrats about needing 60 votes in the Senate or facing Republican filibusters on key legislation. Well, now they have the 60 votes—more than they've had in 30 years—and guess what? Baucus is still trying to tell the American people that the Democrats need Republican approval for what is widely considered the most important issue in the nation today.
It is against this sad record that President Obama must now try his best to make Americans believe that the Democrat-controlled Congress and his administration are reforming our health care system. But how, with the insurance industry still in the driver's seat, can Obama convince anyone that reform is actually going to happen, that the 46 million Americans without insurance are somehow going to receive the health care they need, or that he and his fellow Democrats are going to get rid of the tremendously expensive waste inherent in insurance-based health care?
Far too many Americans have already had their fill of insurance companies whose premiums continue to shoot into the stratosphere while routinely denying claims, cutting payments and refusing to provide coverage for injuries or illnesses that "pre-existed." The thought that these corporations would continue to reap huge profits at the expense of sick people needing care is unpalatable, no matter how silver the president's tongue.
And then there are the Republicans, fired up to once again trash any hope of health care reform as they storm and disrupt Democrat town hall meetings across the nation. Their message, unlike Obama's, is simple—no socialized medicine, no government-run health care. Forget, for the moment, that Medicare, Medicaid and the entire Veterans' Administration system of hospitals and doctors are run by the government. Forget that tens of thousands of citizens benefit tremendously from these systems every day. Instead, we get the specter of Sarah Palin, threatening the American people with non-existent "death panels" that would somehow make the decisions on who gets to receive what level of care.
Obama has his work cut out for him. He could start by taking Baucus for a long walk to the woodshed. Then, as he must realize, he'll have to produce a real health care reform plan that Americans can understand. Or, if he can't muster the ability to lead the recalcitrant Democrats, health care reform, as Republicans have already predicted, may just wind up being his Waterloo.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at firstname.lastname@example.org.