THE PLANK SEPTEMBER 11, 2008
Yesterday at the Center for American Progress, John Podesta
spoke with SEIU President Andy Stern about his new book on The Power of Progress. I got the chance to ask them both about health
care and the energy crisis. In his book, Podesta spends a lot of time on the
latter, writing that “climate change, in my view, is the most demanding problem
confronting America today.” I wondered if health care costs and the ballooning number of the
uninsured wasn’t also pressing, and wanted to know—especially given Podesta’s
former post running Bill Clinton’s White House—which might come first in a new
We’ve gotten into this “who's on first” discussion in this space before; Podesta’s smart, if
optimistic response was that “we can try to tackle them both simultaneously.” Podesta
offered a fair defense of this assessment, noting that the economy is in dire straits and, compared to the Clinton years,
“The business community in general
is in a somewhat more favorable position…. They see the need to tackle the
health care problem—particularly those companies that are engaged in
international competition. That’s different than it was in 1993. Congress largely
deferred to private interests and private insurers. I don’t think that would
happen in a new Congress.”
No doubt many heads in Barack Obama’s Michigan Avenue policy shop are
remembering Clinton’s NAFTA/DOMA bobbles, and debating which enormous problem is smarter
to go after first. As far as I can tell, team Obama has come down hard on the side
of energy legislation. We’ve heard nary a word about health care in the general
election campaign, though I daresay—and as Jon has written valiantly—it should be a winner for the Democratic side.
But, more importantly, the either/or may have to do with faulty
Democratic messaging. Why haven't both issues been framed as a single thought? This
should be a twofer—the accelerating costs of health
care are a huge burden to, for example, automobile manufacturers, who have to
pay legacy costs that international competitors in, say, Japan do not.
So their reluctance to invest heavily in higher fuel efficiency or plug-in electric
hybrid technology can be seen more as a desire to moderate market risk (and
potential losses) than an active aversion to environmental concerns. And, as Joe Klein and CJR synthesize, John McCain is bad on both. Yet health care reform, small business growth, fuel
scarcity and failing industry are all siloed in the public imagination.
Certainly, companies like Boeing and unions like the machinists,
who all have a stake in comprehensive energy action, are on board for lowering
the costs of health care. Obama and Rep. Jay Inslee (one of my favorites) have cosponsored
stopgap “health care for hybrids” legislation that would “address the unique
challenges of the U.S.
auto industry” with a bailout for some health care overhead (more of a frame from
Bracken Hendricks at CAP here). But
the connection between these health care expenditures and the energy crunch has
not really been made explicit in the mind of the public. This is probably why the
Democrats have been losing the energy debate all summer long—and if Obama is lucky enough to have his 100 days to govern next winter, he should keep this in mind.