Kathleen Sebelius is resigning, and Rachel Maddow is right to not be happy about it, not one little bit. For once, I completely agree with Maddow’s analysis. This surprise resignation presents Republicans with an unexpected opportunity to refocus the conversation on Obamacare’s negatives, offers a chance to force vulnerable Senate Democrats to take a hard vote on Obamacare six months before the midterms, and serves to disrupt what had been a positive few days of media spin for the health care law into another conversation about its many failings.
About a month ago, in a conversation with a Senate Democratic aide, the topic of Sebelius – “Auntie K” – came up. The assumption was shared that there was no way Sebelius would be leaving HHS prior to the November midterm elections – indeed, the aide claimed that her position was essentially unassailable given the negative attention her resignation or firing would draw. And besides, any nomination fight, no matter who the nominee is, would quickly become an opportunity for Republican Senators to pile on while Democratic Senators were put in an awkward position. No, the conventional wisdom said Sebelius would stay, at least til November 2014.
So much for the conventional wisdom. Reaching out tonight to the aforementioned aide, and to Republican aides as well, I found unanimous surprise at the step – they learned it from the media, not from trial balloons from the administration. Perhaps this move really was a surprise driven by an attempt on the part of the White House to avoid a Donald Rumsfeld situation, where the embattled Defense Secretary was given a presidential vote of confidence just days prior to the 2006 election, and then had his resignation accepted a week later. Interestingly enough, in Erroll Morris’s The Unknown Known, Rumsfeld himself says he wishes George W. Bush had accepted his resignation two years earlier, in the wake of Abu Ghraib. Perhaps President Obama is learning from his predecessors’ second midterm mistake, or attempting to?
In any case, it appears that this resignation presents Republicans with a golden opportunity to reignite their crusade against Obamacare with Sylvia Burwell’s nomination as a proxy for all the problems with the law. Burwell is a political loyalist and a veteran of the shutdown fight with no record on health care, and will likely be coached to avoid answering questions about specific challenges with implementation at HHS. Senate Republicans actually have an advantage here in the wake of the Nuclear Option’s implementation: they can easily come up with a list of facts they claim the administration has hidden, details kicked aside, statutes ignored, and a host of other challenging questions on accountability over the implementation (and non-implementation) of the law. A list of every question Sebelius has dodged over the past several years would suffice. By demanding answers before the HHS nomination moves forward and refusing to rubber stamp the president’s pick, Republicans could force more vulnerable Democrats to take a vote that ties them both to the Nuclear Option and Obamacare six months before a critical election.
And Democrats know this. Here’s Tom Daschle talking to The Daily Beast:
While the invocation of the “nuclear option” by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid last fall means that Burwell’s confirmation would only require 51 votes and not be subject to a filibuster, it doesn’t mean the process will be easy. Senate Republicans will surely use the process to push their message on Obamacare and to get more information about the implementation of the Affordable Care Act from the administration. Although Burwell was confirmed to head OMB by a vote of 96-0, Daschle cautioned that he thought she wouldn’t have an “easy ride.” As he noted because Obamacare “is such a contentious issue that will be reflected in the hearings.”
Other factions of the left are out there claiming that this resignation is a good thing – a sign of Sebelius’s huge success with Obamacare – not an acceptance of responsibility for Klendathu. But even if that’s what the White House thinks, Maddow’s frustration, in my view, is a wiser assessment of how this will play, and her description will be absolutely accurate if Republicans are smart enough to seize this opportunity. Maddow herself compared it to a sports team that “stops halfway through their victory lap to fire the coach” – no one thinks that’s the way it works. And given that Sebelius was just days ago committing to staying through November to see the next round of implementation through, only the most severe partisan is going to believe this wasn’t a step taken through the lens of 2014. Even the media frame on this from the New York Times, of all places, is “Sebelius Resigns After Troubles Over Health Site”.
A narrative this obvious writes itself. Anyone not interested in believing the lemon tree was haunted knows thinking otherwise is just pretending to enjoy a cool glass of turnip juice.