Let’s compare my checklist with what the President said tonight.

  • Deadline – No deadline. Update: AP reports VP Biden as saying, “I believe we will have a bill before Thanksgiving.” That’s a prediction but not a deadline.
  • “Must” and its variants – I found one bright line, and one fuzzy line claiming to be bright:
    1. “But I will not back down on the basic principle that if Americans can’t find affordable coverage, we will provide you with a choice.”
    2. “I will not sign a plan that adds one dime to our deficits – either now or in the future. Period. And to prove that I’m serious, there will be a provision in this plan that requires us to come forward with more spending cuts if the savings we promised don’t materialize.”
  • Any new numbers – The President surprised me by proposing a specific number for “his plan”: “around $900 billion over ten years.” While this is less than the $1+ trillion in the House bills, it’s still an enormous amount of money.
  • Public option language – He spent the bulk of this part of the speech explaining why he favors a public option. But he was weaker in support of the public option than I anticipated, and he talked more about legislative packaging than I anticipated:
    • “But an additional step we can take …” (Rather than “we should take” or “we must take”)
    • “But its impact shouldn’t be exaggerated – by the left, the right, or the media. It is only one part of my plan, and should not be used as a handy excuse for the usual Washington ideological battles.”
    • “The public option is only a means to that end … and we should remain open to other ideas that accomplish our ultimate goal.”
    • And then he explicitly references Senator Snowe’s trigger idea and Senator Conrad’s co-op idea as “constructive ideas worth exploring.”
  • Does he think the problem is substance or communications? – Communications: “Instead of honest debate, we have seen scare tactics.”
  • How does he characterize the opposition? – He went after them hard. He called out “radio and cable talk show hosts,” “prominent politicians” (I assume he means Gov. Palin), and “special interests.”
  • What did he learn from the August town halls? – Apparently nothing? He never referenced the August town halls. This surprised me.
  • Does he explicitly reject bills developed in July to give nervous Democrats cover? – No.
  • Medical liability / malpractice / tort reform – He committed to begin medial liability demonstration projects through administrative action. I assume he believes this obviates the need for the subject to be addressed in legislation.
  • What is the priority: helping the insured or insuring the uninsured? – Both, as expected. He puts the insured first, but doesn’t strongly prioritize one over the other.
  • “Universal” what? – OK, this one is fascinating. Nowhere in the speech does he promise universal health insurance, or universal health care. His only specific universal statement is “It’s time to give every American the same opportunity
    [to buy health insurance through an exchange] that we’ve given ourselves.” This is a fallback, allowing him to declare victory if expanded coverage falls far short of universality. You have to look carefully to see this. (I had to word search for “universal” and “every.”)
  • Tax increases – He proposes the Kerry policy: “This reform will charge insurance companies a fee for their most expensive policies, which will encourage them to provide greater value for the money – an idea which has the support of Democratic and Republican experts.” This is inaccurate. D and R experts have endorsed repealing or capping the current-law tax exclusion for individuals who buy expensive employer-sponsored insurance plans. Experts on both sides of the aisle have criticized the Kerry variant as inefficient and silly/stupid.
  • Lines designed to highlight the partisan split. – He made the Kennedy linkage. To my ear the speech sounded extremely partisan.
  • Falsely claiming that opponents have no alternative. – As best I can tell, he avoided the direct accusation.
  • Straw men vs. valid substantive critiques – He again highlighted the straw men. He tried to address the deficit point. I’ll address this more tomorrow.
  • What does his speech signal about his strategic legislative choices? – I’m not changing my projections this evening, but expect I will update them before the weekend. I need to see at least a day of public and Member reaction.
    1. Cut a bipartisan deal on a comprehensive bill with 3 Senate Republicans, leading to a law this year; (5% chance)
    2. Pass a partisan comprehensive bill through the regular Senate process with 59 Senate Democrats + one Republican, leading to a law this year; (25% chance)
    3. Pass a partisan comprehensive bill through the reconciliation process with 50 of 59 Senate Democrats, leading to a law this year; (25% chance)
    4. Fall back to a much more limited bill that becomes law this year; (40% chance)
    5. No bill becomes law this year. (5% chance)

The deficit language is the most interesting. He tries to be definitive:

I will not sign a plan that adds one dime to our deficits – either now or in the future. Period.

He immediately follows this with language that is written as if it strengthens this commitment. I think instead it undermines the commitment.

And to prove that I’m serious, there will be a provision in this plan that requires us to come forward with more spending cuts if the savings we promised don’t materialize.

I think he’s anticipating that the Congressional Budget Office will continue to score legislation as increasing long-term budget deficits by an increasing amount each year. The President and his Budget Director will, I think, continue to assert that their “game changers” will reduce long-term budget deficits, despite providing no quantitative evidence to support this claim. This new Presidential language suggests that they will include additional language that requires actual spending cuts if (when) the game changers don’t work.

If I’m right, it’s a transparent gimmick designed to try to get CBO to say the bills don’t increase the long-term budget deficit, without actually making any of the hard choices needed to do so. If you care about the deficit, keep a close eye on this element of the President’s proposal. I will help you do so.

Finally, the President characterized his proposal as a “new plan.” We’ll see if he backs that plan up with anything more on paper.

(photo credit: Joe Plocki)