Axelrod explains the White House health care game plan to JournoList

Noam Scheiber writes a lengthy portrait of David Axelrod in the latest issue of the New Republic.  Axelrod is apparently not having fun, bemoaning Washington DC as place where “too many people spend too much time kneecapping each other to certify their own importance.”

Axelrod likes to aim a little higher apparently, because he then pulls out a giant knife and plants it right between Rahm’s shoulder blades:

Last spring, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel began pursuing a series of deals with interest groups—insurers, pharmaceutical manufacturers, hospitals—to grease the passage of health care. When Axelrod eventually turned to the issue, he became frustrated. The deals Emanuel was negotiating were moving the legislation forward. But they risked provoking a public backlash. “During the campaign we fought against insurance companies,” Axelrod said in discussions with Emanuel and the president. “After the deals with insurance companies, the deals with Pharma—all these people are supposedly our friends.”

Ouch. I guess they need a sin eater, and after Durbin’s pointed refusal to endorse Rahm on CNN yesterday, looks like it might be him.

But it’s also clear that the race is on to unload responsibility for the extremely unpopular health care bill.  And Axelrod wants to make sure he doesn’t get the blame:

In the spring of 2009, White House officials gathered in the Roosevelt Room to discuss the direction of health care reform. One of the looming questions was the so-called tax exclusion. Under the status quo, a worker making $75,000 per year with no benefits would pay taxes on all his compensation. But a worker making $50,000 plus $25,000 in health benefits would only pay taxes on his income; the benefits would be untouched. This gave employers an incentive to provide generous insurance, which, in turn, led workers to consume too much health care. Pretty much every wonk in the administration believed that taxing benefits was essential. But the political team saw a problem: During the presidential campaign, Obama had criticized John McCain for a similar proposal.

Axelrod was especially concerned about reversing course. The campaign had run millions of dollars in ads specifically on the issue. To underscore the point, he screened a roughly ten-minute montage of every Obama ad blasting McCain as a tax-raiser. It was to little avail. By late July, when the president held an Oval Office meeting with several prominent health economists, it was clear he intended to endorse the tax (though it ultimately fell hardest on upper-income workers). Axelrod stood off to the side and said little.

Axelrod said plenty during the health care fight actually. The self-described “populist” was feeding dutiful JournoList scribes like Jon Chait and Matt Yglesias, as well as John Cole, cues to attack the “left” for raising justified concerns about both the bill, and what it would mean for the Democratic Party:

Trying to stave off a sudden fusillade from the left, White House senior adviser David Axelrod said Thursday that Howard Dean’s criticisms of health-care reform are “predicated on a bunch of erroneous conclusions” and that for progressives to torpedo the legislation “would be a tragic, tragic outcome.”

To defeat a bill that will bend the curve on this inexorable rise in health-care costs is insane,” Axelrod said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “I don’t think that you want this moment to pass. It will not come back.”

Axelrod called in from the West Wing as the White House mobilized Thursday morning in the face of a surprising and potentially fatal chorus of opposition from the left.

In the most vivid indication of the crisis facing White House messengers, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann told viewers Wednesday night that the Senate version has become “unsupportable … a hollow shell of a bill.”

Of course it wasn’t true that the health care bill would “bend the curve on this inexorable rise in health care costs.”  But Axelrod’s efforts were largely successful, and in short order Olbermann, Dean and others were wilting under the onslaught and toeing the White House line.  Here’s how Jon Chait of Noam Scheiber’s own New Republic was dutifully attacking “liberal critics” who wouldn’t:

Here it is, the most dramatic improvement in social justice in at least four decades fighting for its life in the home stretch, and the left can barely be roused to fight for it. The somnolence is far from universal, but on the left there is at least as much passion against health care reform as for it. One of many considerations the vulnerable Democratic moderates who hold reform’s fate in their hands must balance is, in return for the limitless rage of the right, will they get any credit from the left for backing this reform? At the moment when every voice counts, when every ounce of pressure could prove decisive, here is FireDogLake:

Lynn Woolsey says she’s a definite “yes” vote on the Senate health care bill. Even if it lacks a public option. Despite the fact that it’s the biggest blow to a woman’s right to choose in a generation, and may come at the price of a stand-alone vote that allows Blue Dogs and ConservaDems to join with Republicans and roll them back even further in order to get Bart Stupak’s support.

Any ability for progressives to negotiate, to achieve meaningful concessions, to exert their influence and make the bill better just disappeared.

It’s time for Lynn Woolsey to resign as the head of the Progressive Caucus.

Yes, that is what it is time for! One day, when progressives study this moment in history, they will evaluate all of us by this single standard: What did they do to stop Lynn Woolsey?

And here was Matt Yglesias, echoing Axelrod’s refrain:

I wish that FDL agreed with me and Chait and Paul Krugman and the SEIU and the NAACP about health care rather than taking its counterproductive dead-ender stance. But the fact of the matter is that on this issue they represent a rather marginal point of view and I don’t see any real evidence that there’s major support for their view.

People like Chait and Yglesias who have little or no experience in electoral politics might have an excuse for thinking opposition to the health care bill was a “marginal point of view” and a “counterproductive dead-ender stance,” especially if they were looking to the opinions of influential elites like Axelrod for their cues.

And it’s no mystery why freshly minted Democrat John Cole was cheerleading the comfortable familiarity of a Republican health care bill – after its passage, Nancy Pelosi quickly sent out an email bragging that its underlying principles were written by the Heritage Foundation, with the helpful quote that “Democrats have been less than true to their principles.”

But Axelrod could read a poll.  And any comprehensive internal polling undoubtedly told him, just as it told us,  that it spelled disaster for the Democrats in November if this health care bill passed.  And yet here was Axelrod:

Peggy Noonan, the columnist and former Reagan speechwriter, told Axelrod: “On the issue of health care, you are losing the left, you are losing the right, you are losing the center. That looks to me like a political disaster.”

“When you describe what’s in the bill, there’s strong support for it,” Axelrod replied.

Just like Chris Van Hollen, Axelrod knew better at the time.  And he lied.

I don’t really care what David Axelrod tells the New Republic in order to escape the exploding political bomb of the health care bill.  He spent his fair share of time punching hippies for pointing out the obvious truth that this would be an incredibly unpopular bill.

If it’s all Rahm’s fault for cutting backroom deals with PhRMA and AHIP last summer, where was Axelrod then?

Update: John Cole breaks out in hysteria over an unfortunate edit that implied he was a member of Journolist.  No, he wasn’t, and I didn’t think he was.  I apologize and edited it for clarity.

He responds, “you’ve lost your shit“:

I have repeatedly and consistently stated over and over again that I would prefer any health care bill penned by Jane, D-Day, Jon Walker, or any number of far more progressive bills- if they had any chance of passing. Unlike some, I am quite capable of counting to 60. There were never votes for the public option.

I’m happy he can count to sixty but apparently he can’t read. The health care bill passed through reconciliation, it only needed 50 votes in the Senate. Hence all the giant headlines like this that appeared across the internet for months:

Reid: Dems will use 50-vote tactic to finish healthcare in 60 days

There were 53 Senators on record supporting the public option.

Life in a screeching echo chamber often makes it difficult to know what’s happening in the real world.  But for anyone interested in staying informed and discerning the facts before they form their opinions, we actually took a good deal of trouble to document things along the way.

I get no small amount of frothing emails from people who say the same thing John says — “we didn’t have 60 votes for the public option.” And I’m sure that during the months he spent eating his own liver in a fit of misogynistic rage, he was responsible for misinforming many of them.  An honest broker would take some time to correct that, rather than have another heapin’ helping of bile.  But having lived through the  “Jane Hamshers of the left” experience with Cole, I’m willing to bet that won’t be happening any time soon.