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Back From the Death Panel

How the public option, helped by a congressman looking for an issue and a shrewdly silent White House, returned from the brink.

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Illustration by André Carrilho  

On the night last week when much of Washington was joyously weeping over the seal of approval bestowed on the Baucus health-care bill by the Congressional Budget Office, Anthony Weiner was in his quarters in the Rayburn Building, merrily pissing all over the legislation instead. “It’s just too weak,” he told me. “It doesn’t do enough. It doesn’t achieve real cost savings. There’s no real competition. It’s pretty much a wish list for the insurance companies.” And those were merely Weiner’s substantive criticisms of the bill. His political assessment was even harsher: “It’s effectively dead,” he said.

Not a droplet of Weiner’s dismissal of the Baucus plan came as any sort of shock; he’s been trashing the Senate Finance Committee’s efforts for weeks. What’s surprising is that anyone gives a fig what Weiner has to say about the topic in the first place. Until six months ago, after all, the congressman was known more for his yearning to acquire the keys to Gracie Mansion than his mastery of the arcana of Medicare reimbursement rates. In fact, as Weiner would be the first to admit, his interest in, knowledge of, and record on health-care reform were perilously close to nonexistent.

And yet, since May, when he concluded that taking on Mike Bloomberg was a challenge that went beyond the Sisyphean into the realm of the just plain silly, Weiner has emerged as one of the few real stars in the marathon health-care debate: the clearest and savviest (and, as always, loudest and noodgiest) voice in favor of the public option. And though it’s plain that whatever bill eventually lands on Barack Obama’s desk—and, yes, I think the odds are now close to overwhelming that a big pile of health-care paper will wind up there—won’t be anything close to Weiner’s single-payer dream, his role in framing the terms of the discussion has been more than salutary. In some non-obvious ways, you could argue that it’s been essential.

I should confess at the outset that I have a long-standing soft spot for Weiner, whom I first met more than twenty years ago, when he was a budding Chuck Schumer protégé and we played on the same Capitol Hill softball team. Weiner then was strikingly similar to Weiner now: amped-up, ambitious, wicked smart, forever gauging all the angles, unafraid of being (actually, proud of being) a royal pain in the tuchis. All the qualities, in other words, that have served him so well in the wrangle over health care.

Weiner describes his efflorescence on the subject as a matter of opportunism, in the best sense of the word. “This was one of those unusual issues where we really didn’t have a mother ship that was directing the message, and that created an entrepreneurial environment,” he says. “You didn’t have the president out there speaking clearly about what he wanted. And among my colleagues, there weren’t people that jumped out who either had a comfort with the material or weren’t intimidated by the blowback.” Weiner laughs. “Frankly, I like the blowback. After my thirteenth town-hall meeting, someone on my staff said, ‘I can’t tell if you’re a sadist or a masochist.’ ”

Weiner is right about the nature of the vacuum that he smartly stepped in to fill, but there are at least two other proximate causes for it that should be added to his list: the illness and death of Ted Kennedy and the migration of Hillary Clinton out of the Senate and into Foggy Bottom, which deprived the debate of what would have been its two dominant liberal protagonists. For Weiner, Clinton’s absence and its implications carry a personal twist; he is engaged to Huma Abedin, Hillary’s longtime personal aide. “It’s a weird irony that I’m kind of part of the family now and this has become my issue,” Weiner says. “If Hillary had stayed in the Senate, I would never have had this opening.”

Weiner allows that he’s discussed the health-care battle with Clinton; what she’s told him he will not say. But one imagines she approves of the cleverness and chutzpa he’s displayed—especially in drawing an explicit analogy between the public option and Medicare, an equation that not only increases support for the proposal among voters but flushes out the phoniness of the Republican howls against a “government takeover” of health care. And one similarly imagines Madame Secretary’s chagrin at watching the Obama White House pursue a dance-of-the-seven-veils strategy explicitly designed to be the antithesis of the one she employed back in 1993 and 1994.

Weiner’s view of the administration’s approach hasn’t exactly been approving—a point he’s made abundantly and consistently clear over the past months. On the eve of Obama’s September speech before a joint session of Congress, Weiner cracked that “up to now, the messaging from the White House has been done by Sybil … They seem to have a different perspective on this every couple of hours.” And he’s apparently had no change of heart. “The president has been a miserable messenger on this by and large,” he tells me.


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