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Ezra Klein’s Modified Limited Hangout (on the Public Option)

John on September 30, 2009 at 7:36 am

It seems Washington Post writer Ezra Klein has contradicted himself on the public option. To understand how, you’ll have to allow a bit of backstory… [Casual readers can get the executive summary here. - John]

Back on June 25th, Morgen posted this video clip of Klein:

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By chance, Ezra Klein had posted some criticism of our friend Ed Morrissey at Hot Air that same day. Ed responded to Ezra with this post and included Morgen’s video clip as part of his response. Klein then wrote another post responding to Ed titled The Underpants Gnomes Theory of Single-Payer. I’ll quote it at length:

Yesterday, I said that Ed Morrissey didn’t understand Barack Obama’s health-care plan. Today, as a rebuttal, he posted a video of me talking about other health-care plans that I say liberal interest groups hope will move us toward single-payer. It’s not really clear to me how this is a rebuttal. Unless, of course, you don’t understand that there are differences between the various health-care plans discussed by Democrats, which I think is what’s going on here.

[He quotes Ed saying that he agreed with Ezra's view that this is all a "sneaky strategy"]

Actually, that’s not my view unless the public plan can use Medicare bargaining rates. But put that aside. Conservatives have an Underpants Gnomes-theory of how liberals mean to achieve single payer. It looks something like this:

1) With 60 votes in the Senate and a hugely popular new president, Democrats labor to reform the health-care system and manage, barely, to create a public insurance option by promising up-and-down that it wouldn’t have any government-provided advantages over private health insurance plans. This is about competition, they swear.

2) ????

3) The United States Senate votes to outlaw private health insurance.

I really don’t understand it. Morrissey isn’t wrong to say that many liberals would like a single-payer system. But there is nothing in Barack Obama’s plan that would enact such a thing and nothing in the political jockeying we’ve seen thus far that should make anybody think such a thing is possible.

Today Senator Grassley quoted from our video on the Senate floor. See here for details. One of the things Grassley quoted was a portion of the video clip above. Klein put up a post about it this afternoon, saying:

He was quoting me a bit out of context, and he was actually just cribbing from the Heritage Foundation’s round-up of out-of-context quotes on the public option, but still: Any publicity is good publicity and all that.

The problem is that it wasn’t really accurate. The quotation came from a panel I did in Netroots Nation two years ago, where I was actually cast as the critical voice against a chorus of single-payer supporters. The argument I made, basically, was that single-payer does not have the votes, and it does not have the votes because, whatever the basic polls say, politicians do not believe their constituents will punish them for opposing single-payer.

Here is the part of my presentation that Heritage quoted: “They have a sneaky strategy, the point of which is to put in place something that over time the natural incentives within its own market will move it to single-payer.” The “they” in this sentence refers to the folks who conceived of the public option, and the “sneaky” was a joke setting up the next part of the sentence: Supporters of the public option think the market will move us towards single-payer. Socialists for capitalism!

There are several problems here. First of all, the clip above was not from the Netroots Nation conference two years ago, it was from just last year (July 2008). We know because, as noted above, Morgen was the one who originally found and posted it.

Second, Klein was not on a panel with a chorus of single-payer advocates. One of the people on the dais with him was a spokesman for Health Care for America Now. Another was from Families USA. HCAN is a nationwide conglomeration of liberal interest groups pushing Barack Obama’s vision of health reform including the public option. Why do they favor the public option? Because it’s a sneaky way to get to single-payer over time. Families USA is also a proponent of the public option and not an open advocate for single-payer.

If you watch the clip, that’s exactly what Klein was saying. In order to win “they” have come up with a “sneaky strategy” that disguises the path to single payer as just another option. Or if you prefer the President’s mantra, it’s all about “choice and competition.” The public option was never an end in and of itself. It was always a means to an end.

Third, as for “sneaky” being the set up for a joke, that’s also a recollection not borne out by the video. Maybe Klein made that joke somewhere, at some other health reform panel. What’s certain is that he didn’t do it at the event in question or as part of the statement in question. Morgen has seen the whole tape. There is no punch line about socialists and capitalists spoken by anyone at this event. Here is a fuller version of the above clip that proves the point:

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Thus far I think we’ve demonstrated that we have a better picture of the “context” of Klein’s remarks then he does himself. Still, everything so far could potentially be chalked up to a poor recollection. That sort of thing does happen, especially when blogging off the cuff. Klein speaks at a lot of panels. Getting a couple of them confused is bound to happen.

Unfortunately, Klein has gotten himself into a bigger problem than just confusing two speaking gigs. The real problem arises when you compare his statements about the “sneaky strategy” line published today with what he said about the exact same statement back in June. In his June response to Ed Morrissey, the one that included our video, he wrote:

[M]any liberals would like a single-payer system. But there is nothing in Barack Obama’s plan that would enact such a thing…

Today he wrote:

The “they” in this sentence refers to the folks who conceived of the public option…

And indeed, if you review the clip that is who “they” refers to. As noted above, it refers most directly to HCAN who had a spokesman on the panel.

This begs a simple question. Was the public option part of Barack Obama’s plan in June? Yes it was. In that case, Klein’s previous statement is false since there was indeed something in Obama’s plan which constituted a “sneaky strategy” to enact single-payer. That something was the public option. And since that was our contention all along, we (and Ed Morrissey) seem to be vindicated on the point.

There’s more. In June Klein wrote that “liberal interest groups” were the ones promoting these sneaky strategies, without specifying who those groups were. Today he says plainly that he was referring to the folks who “conceived of the public option.”

Who are those who “conceived of” the public option? Well, undoubtedly one of them is Jacob Hacker. Hacker is an academic who became one of ObamaCare’s primary architects. So, despite what Klein said in June, i.e. that his sneaky strategy statement was directed at “other health care plans”, he now says this was about Hacker’s plan. In other words, it was about ObamaCare.

Give Klein credit for the remainder of his post today, which somewhat accurately describes how he and other liberals believed the public option could evolve into single payer over time via a (supposed) market mechanism. Not surprisingly however, his post today doesn’t refer to the public option as a “defacto beast” (see clip 2) through the government’s artificial capping, spending, and pricing of the government plan at a level below which private insurers would be able to compete. I don’t think this would be anyone’s definition of a free market mechanism, and it’s another solid argument against the public option.

It appears he wanted the “sneaky strategy” to work.But all of this raises the really big question. Why is Klein saying all this now? Did he not think this bit of information was significant before today? Did he not think his readers would be interested in knowing that the public option was designed as a means to an end or that it’s inclusion in ObamaCare was always meant as the camel’s nose of single-payer? Today he writes that liberals are willing to bet on the marketplace. Then why did he choose to write a snarky post about Underwear Gnomes which concluded that ObamaCare contained no such provision? If liberals are willing to bet on the marketplace why didn’t he just say so?

It certainly looks to us as if Klein failed to make these points because, so long as the public option was still viable, he didn’t want to spoil the surprise. In other words, it appears he wanted the “sneaky strategy” to work. But now that hopes for the public option are waning (and his statement a part of the Congressional record) he finally comes out with it. He owns up to the plain meaning of his quote even as he continues to claim (wrongly) that it was taken out of context.

We wonder if the Washington Post ombudsman might be interested in Klein’s curiously “evolving” statements on this matter or the reasons for his silence on this prior to today. Fuzzy recollections are one thing; journalists who hide unpleasant truths from their readers…that’s something else. Isn’t it?

At the very least, the perception of political bias is there. The Washington Post should follow the lead of the NY Times public editor and say so. Something just doesn’t look right about this. The ball is in your court Post editors.

Klein ends his post with a question, “Now who’s being sneaky?” Based on the video and his previous statements, I think we’ve provided a legitimate answer: You are, Ezra.

Addendum: A commenter points out, correctly, that Klein writes commentary not news. In that case, the partisanship of his writing can’t be faulted. Nevertheless, Klein did tell two different and conflicting stories about the meaning of his own statement on the public option. One can pick facts selectively, but outright falsehood is still a no-no. At least it ought to be. I guess we’ll see if the Post agrees.

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