"To Be Sure" About Health-Care Reform, Don't Read Robert Samuelson.

Robert Samuelson is the archetypal Washington columnist, who's managed to write about federal politics for years without learning a thing about it. He's also got the cliches down, one of which is the "to be sure" paragraph, where editors ask writers to stick the strongest counter to their own argument; it usually comes at the end of a piece. The Post's editors had Samuelson stick his "to be sure" in the fourth paragraph, and it's a doozy. Here's what we're talking about:

Barack Obama's quest for historic health-care legislation has turned into a parody of leadership. .... of course, it is about him.

... To be sure, [health care reform] would provide insurance to 30 million or more Americans by 2019. People would enjoy more security. But even these gains must be qualified. Some of the newly insured will get healthier, but how many and by how much is unclear.

So, according to Samuel, this whole year-long legislative effort is entirely about Obama's ego ... except for the 30 million people who will get health insurance because of the effort. It's a "to be sure" so big that it blows Samuelson's whole argument out of the water.

Except that there is no argument there. Samuelson argues that the bill will fail to cover more people and cost much more than expected based on his own back-of-the-envelope calculations about immigration, a report from the Lewin Group, which is funded entirely by the private insurance industry, and a 2007 CBO report that discusses total federal spending, not health care. He totally ignores all of the current studies by the CBO and other independent analysts that say the bill will cut the deficit -- a notoriously stingy CBO's latest estimate says the bill will save $132 billion over the first decade, and a corrected estimates of the long-term costs say the bill will cut the deficit by "between one-quarter percent and one-half percent of GDP" over the second decade while cutting the growth rates of Medicare and Medicaid costs in half. These facts don't make it into Samuelson's column.

The biggest joke is that Samuelson once again fails to understand the political dynamics that led to this bill's creation; in fact, it is the same mistake he made in the summer with the stimulus. (Remember what I said about not learning?) He totally elides Congress from his analysis -- this is "Obama's plan" despite the fact that he didn't write it, Congress did, and that various members of Congress (none mentioned in this column) put in things that Obama didn't like, and took out things he did. Obama will have to own these reforms, and he played a role in their creation, but to assign him total responsibility here is just willful blindness to the basic facts of how the U.S. government works.

-- Tim Fernholz

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