How To Listen To Politicians: Emanuel/Axelrod Case Study

How to listen to politicians: the title sounds like the start of a joke. I’ll let you supply the punchline. Meanwhile, I’ll elaborate on a meme from my take on how health reform was handled in Obama’s SOTU address. When a politician speaks she may be conveying a genuine policy preference or playing politics or both. How does one distinguish? It isn’t so easy. Even seasoned policy wonks and political junkies can disagree.

Let’s take a recent example. Over the last two days there were media reports of statements made by presidential adviser David Axelrod and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel about the Administration’s health reform agenda. The two gave a conflicting sense of Obama’s legislative priorities. They can’t both be right. Therefore one is talking policy, the other politics. But who is talking what?

Let’s start with Axelrod. As reported by TPM, in a briefing with reporters on Thursday he reinforced Obama’s commitment to health reform, “[W]e are working closely with folks on the Hill to develop the way forward and get this done and that’s all we’re focused on, on health care, is getting it done.” And, “We haven’t transitioned away from it … we are going to take the steps we think hold out the most promise to getting this done.”

Contrast that with Emanuel who said in an interview with NY Times reporters today that health reform was not priority number one.

Democrats would try to act first on job creation, reducing the deficit and imposing tighter regulation on banks before returning to the health measure, the president’s top priority from last year.

Ezra Klein sees this as the death knell of health reform. He explained that if health reform is really important to the Administration then

“[t]he timetable Emanuel is laying out makes little sense. The jobs bill will take some time. Financial regulation will take much longer. Let’s be conservative and give all this four months.

… The longer this takes, the less likely it is to happen. And Emanuel just said that the administration’s preference is to let it take longer. If I were a doctor, I’d downgrade health care’s prognosis considerably atop this evidence.

So who is speaking for the Administration on policy and who on politics, Axelrod or Emanuel? Jonathan Chait attempts to sort it out.

Emanuel is not necessarily speaking for the administration. Emanuel’s message is not David Axelrod’s message. And it’s not Obama’s message. But Emanuel is out there floating his [delay health reform] plan, and that’s a major problem for Democrats, not to mention the national interest.

I see two potential explanations. Either Obama doesn’t know what he wants to do, and his deputies are spreading conflicting stories in order to see what takes, in which case he needs to make up his mind pronto. Or else he wants to do what he says he wants to do, but his chief of staff is out there subverting his agenda and making Congress doubt his seriousness, in which case Obama needs to shut up Emanuel or fire him.

I think there is another interpretation and Jonathan Cohn suggests it.

[T]here’s an argument for taking health care reform out of the spotlight for a little while. It’s not good for the cause, or the people promoting it, when the political world is hanging on Evan Bayh’s every twitch. Making progress on jobs is bound to help Obama and the Democrats, which will make passing reform easier.

And the process is going to need at least a little more time–time to work through the technical elements of writing a reconciliation bill and then time to debate the bill itself.

If that’s the thinking in the White House then it would make sense for the President to have authorized simultaneous and contradictory messages. Via Rahm and to the nervous members of the Democratic Caucus: don’t worry, we’re doing popular jobs and banks stuff now. Via Axelrod and to the party base: don’t worry, we’re really going to do health care pretty soon.

If my thesis is correct then the Administration is trying to walk a fine line and satisfy their policy goals (passing health reform, among other things) and a political imperative (showing Americans they care about jobs and the economy). That suggests that Axelrod’s message is Obama’s policy goal on health reform. He wants it done. And Rahm is attempting to seize control of the politics, at the rhetorical expense of health reform.

Taking the general thrust of both messages, the best interpretation for health care reform is that the truth is really somewhere in the middle. It will get done but neither right away nor toward the end of Spring. I’m still optimistic health reform will get done, but only as long as Democrats remain convinced that failure will cost them later. If enough people lose interest in health care it will be dead. And, in that case, to answer Chait’s question, Rahm will be seen as the killer. But in truth he will have had a lot of accomplices.

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