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What Went Wrong?

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Friday, February 19, 2010

Something has gone very wrong.

Was it just a year ago that Democrats assumed more control in Washington than the party has had in my lifetime? It was.

Was it just a year ago that President Obama promised a new era of change, bipartisanship and transparency? It was.

Just weeks into office, the president pushed through a major stimulus package to save the American economy, restore credit, build infrastructure and create jobs. Now, unable to get Republicans to support what was their idea -- a bipartisan commission on the deficit -- the president has appointed one of his own, complete with warnings about how the deficit will sink us in the future if we fail to act.

Republicans shouldn't be able to get away with opposing a bipartisan effort to reduce the deficit, but they can and they have, for one simple reason: The country has turned.

The president and the Democrats may have only lost one Senate seat (so far), but in terms of actual control, they have lost much more. Republicans can just say no as long as the country seems to agree with them. Do you want to guess what they'll be saying to television cameras next week at the "negotiating" session on health care?

So what went wrong? Every Democrat I talk to has a different answer or, rather, a different person to blame. It was Nancy Pelosi's fault or Harry Reid's or Rahm Emanuel's. Should have made a bigger show of reaching out to Republicans; shouldn't have cut those deals behind closed doors. It is, I am told every day, a communications problem.

Years ago, when I was working in politics, I had a meeting with our pollsters that I'll never forget. After a particularly detailed (and negative) survey, one of the guys who had been polling for years leaned over to me and said, "We have a very big problem. People just don't like our candidate." Not an ideological problem. Not a problem with his experience or positions. They just didn't like him.

Of course, you can't tell your candidate that the people don't like him. So we looked at each other and shook our heads. There is only one way to translate that result. Candidate, we said to him, the people don't know you.

The White House is trying to treat the problem with its health care proposal as a communications problem. It's not that people don't want the plan; they just don't know how great it is. Our fault, says the president, for not communicating more effectively.

Not so fast.

Barack Obama is a great communicator. He's talked a lot about health care in the past year. And I've been listening. I know just as many horror stories as they do about what happens to people with pre-existing conditions, how you can't get insurance no matter what you're willing to pay, and if you have it, you can't afford to give it up, no matter how many arms and legs they charge you or how bad the coverage.

I'm all for letting people with pre-existing conditions buy affordable insurance. But letting a slew of older, sicker people into any pool will dramatically increase premiums for everyone in that pool. (What did they say about letting everyone into the pool with federal workers?) So you have to make the young, healthy people join, too, or the costs will be exorbitant.

So, hypothetically, now everyone has insurance -- either they pay for it, or we do. Then what happens? Everybody gets more health care. Just exactly how does that save us money? Just exactly how do we pay for it?

Cost controls? In order to get refills for my arthritis medicine every month, I have to get pre-approval each time from the insurance company, which this week has taken most of the week. I always get the approval, of course, because this is medicine you don't stop taking after a month or two. If the insurance company saves money, it's only because making the pharmacist jump through more hoops sometimes means I miss a dose or two. This cannot be what they mean by cost control.

Get rid of unnecessary tests? I'm not really into unnecessary tests. It's getting the necessary tests approved that causes so much trouble.

Paying doctors and hospitals less to give us more? That's bound to work…

It's not a communications problem. What's gone wrong is that people see the country swimming in debt, see the jobs recovery lagging, see friends and neighbors who are not even hanging on, and they just don't know how this administration is planning to pay for a massive health care reform effort.

The appointment of a bipartisan commission on the deficit only underscores the problem and makes it seem that the administration has no answer for it except another new spending program. "Just say no" isn't the answer to the need for health care reform -- but neither is another big spending program when we are being told our historic debt is a ticking time bomb for our children.

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