This Battle Is A Close-Run Thing

Political cohesion, or the lack thereof – the stand-off between the president and the Republicans – is the big story in Washington these days, mainly because of the dire problem of restoring fiscal stability in the wake of the 2008-09 recession. It is underscored by the Obama administration’s new ten-year budget.

Not until 2015 is there a realistic hope of reaching a sustainable level of borrowing – and then only with some combination of benefit cuts and tax increases. The ever-bombastic Niall Ferguson warned in The Financial Times last week that “A Greek crisis is coming to America.”

Perhaps. But five years is a long time to wear a tin pot and a whistle, waiting for a fiscal Pearl Harbor.

But then from Boston, where Ferguson is professor of economic history at Harvard University, and I am an economic journalist, there is no alternative to the long view. EP spent most of a couple of days last week reading Reappraising the Right, a 2009 collection of articles by George Nash; The Road from Mont Pelerin, a collection of papers edited by Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe; and The Right Nation, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, hoping to make a column out of what these various histories of conservative thought might portend about the future. No dice, not when the narrative is as murky as it is today. .

When the times are as confusing as they are just now, I read David Rogers.

Rogers is commonly acknowledged to be the best Congressional reporter in the country – “the 101st senator,” in ABC News’s phrase. A combat medic in Vietnam, he reported on City Hall for The Boston Globe, moved to Washington and covered Capitol Hill for The Wall Street Journal for twenty five years. Politico hired him away in 2008.

Politico? It’s the fifth national newspaper that I look at every day, after the Financial Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. Created from a rib of the Post in 2007, when a couple of top reporters there persuaded television magnate Robert Allbritton that the time was ripe for a paper with a new business model, it’s been a solid success – a daily political news boutique.

Out-of-towners think Politico is mainly a website. Indeed, its servers averaged 6.7 million unique visitors a month last summer, down from 11 million at the height of the presidential campaign, but quite respectable compared to the Post’s 9.3 million unique visitors in August. Yet the major portion of the advertising revenues that sustain Politco’s staff of around 100, some thirty of them reporters, come from a conventional newsprint edition that is distributed for free to some 32,000 desks on Capitol Hill and around the city, as often as five days a week when Congress is in session, as seldom as once a week when it’s not. Politico is a small ship, in other words, compared to the Post – expected 2009 revenues of about $30 million, according to an article by Michael Wolff in Vanity Fair, where the Post’s revenues through the first nine months were $486 million – but, with respect to political news, it sails fast.

And what does Rogers say? At the moment, he says keep your eyes on Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H) in the days leading up to Obama’s televised meeting with Republican legislators on February 24. Gregg briefly agreed last year to serve as Obama’s Secretary of Commerce, before withdrawing, citing philosophical differences. He has announced he won’t be seeking reelection this year. As the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, he is a fierce deficit hawk.

The administration is still trying to bring Democrats together for a final push to produce comprehensive health care reform, says Rogers – presumably through the complicated procedure known as reconciliation, which would require a simple majority of 51 votes But if that fails, and the White House is forced to scale back its plan, “Gregg would seem certain to come into play,” writes Rogers, and probably Maine’s two moderate Republicans, Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, as well.

Judd’s preferred gambit: apply the nearly $500 billion in Medicare savings contemplated by the House and Senate bills to deficit reduction, instead of plowing into expanded coverage. Perhaps he would settle for half as much, suggests Rogers, in which case the Democrats could pick up another $50 billion for coverage by embracing medical malpractice reform. And so on, through a series of possible compromises Judd packaged under the catchy heading of CPR: coverage, prevention and reform. It’s all there in Rogers’s February 11 story. (The epochal significance of the Democrats’ attempt at reform he set out quite clearly last fall.)

Rogers won’t have all the best stuff in the next few weeks, naturally. The Times, the Journal and the Post have crack teams on the beat as well. It’s clear, though, the battle over health care will be an exceedingly close-run thing, and that its outcome will determine to a considerable extent the field on which the autumn election campaigns play out. David Rogers will be the best overall guide as the story unfolds.

And when things are somewhat more resolved, there will be time enough for EP to return to George Nash; to Mirowski and Plehwe; and Mickletwait and Woolridge, and try to dig down in the story. For journalists, narrative clarity is the root of peace.