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White House Readies Gamble On High-Speed Ping-Pong

Here’s an emerging bit of conventional wisdom that I have reason to believe is accurate:

The White House’s announcement yesterday that it will schedule its State of the Union address for next Wednesday, January 27th, an earlier date than most insiders expected, is surely not coincidental and reflects a desire to pressure the House into voting for the Senate’s version of the health care bill almost immediately, assuming that Scott Brown defeats Martha Coakley in Massachusetts tonight.

The pitch that the White House and Nancy Pelosi will make to the Democratic members of the House is a difficult one and will need to be extremely well executed, but is likely to consist of one or more of the following arguments:

(1) President Obama can deliver a home-run speech when he needs to and will deliver a home-run speech on January 27th that features a sharp pivot toward more populist economic policies, such as a bank tax, financial regulation, and a jobs bill.

(2) The White House already got the 60th vote that was going to be the most difficult to get: Ben Nelson’s to push them past the finish line on health care. On most other issues, they may not have had 59 votes anyway. In other cases still, the White House will be more amenable to using reconciliation, which was designed for precisely the sort of fiscal measures they will be considering in the spring and summer. Scott Brown’s vote may not be in play in the immediate term, but could be in the medium term, essentially leaving the Democrats in the same position they were before Arlen Specter defected. And the Democrats’ shaky 60-seat supermajority was not doing them much good as far as optics and public perception went.

(3) The White House’s tone will change to reflect the new math. It will be less even-tempered with the Republicans in Congress, while at the same time being more identifiably populist to moderate and independent swing voters. It will focus almost exclusively on things that poll at 50%+ or that are necessary to keep the country running. This may include some initiatives where they don’t expect to receive Republican votes; such measures will be pushed to the floor quickly, forcing Republicans to cast a roll call vote to filibuster them rather than making disingenuous objections to the press.

(4) Some grievances that House members may have with the Senate’s health care bill can be resolved through reconciliation in the Senate. The long time-frame before implementation provides a window of several years for this to be accomplished.

(5) Although there has been considerable damage extracted from the debate over health care, there is reason to believe that most of it is in the past. The health care bill itself has not become any more unpopular than when the Senate passed it in November. The party will not do itself any favors by having passed a health care bill through both chambers, only to see it implode.

(6) Near-term political fallout from passing health care may be mitigated somewhat by Republican giddiness over Scott Brown’s victory and coverage of the SOTU.

Some of this is spin and some of it isn’t, and all of it will place tremendous pressure on the White House to perform more effectively in 2010 than they did in 2009. But it’s not an unsellable message.

The question is whether the math is there to pass the Senate’s bill. Jonathan Cohn presents the optimists’ case and David Dayen the pessimists’ one. I am somewhere on the fence. I agree that at a minimum, the Democrats will lose some (although perhaps not all) votes from the Stupak block. There’s also Robert Wexler’s retirement to contend with. On the other hand, the Senate’s bill is closer to what some Blue Dogs in Congress had wanted in the first place, and several of them who voted against the House’s version had indicated a willingness to vote for a Senate-like measure. Some other possible sources of votes are Dennis Kucinich and Eric Massa, the two Democrats to have opposed the House’s bill from the left, and any members who voted against the House’s bill initially but are now planning to retire. Three Democrats — Bart Gordon, John Tanner, and Brian Baird — who voted against the House’s health care bill have since announced plans to retire.

The greatest advantage that Pelosi has under the ping-pong scenario is that this really is an ultimatum case: while there is some negotiation to be had, in terms of how the Democrats will reward members who vote for the bill, the text of the bill itself cannot be changed one iota. It’s take-it-or-leave-it, and so there are fewer possibilities for brinksmanship gone awry.

The greatest disadvantage, of course, is the possibility of mass panic, resulting not just from Coakley’s loss but also from retirements, worrisome polling, and a toxic media environment. 2010 has gotten off to a really bad start on so many levels for the Democrats.

I’m reminded a bit of what happened to the New York Mets after their spectacular playoff collapse of 2007, the second-biggest choke in baseball history, after which the Mets surprisingly did not fire their manager, Willie Randolph. The collapse had been so sudden, so total, and so unexpected that the the Mets sped straight through anger and immediately into grieving, and you don’t fire anyone during a wake. (Randolph was fired once the Mets came to their sesnes 69 games into the 2008 season.)

The Democrats will be in a similar state of mind if Coakley loses tonight, and the White House’s idea will be to give them something to focus upon before the the numbness wears off and the pain sets in. It might not work, but the State of the Union is fortuitously timed, and perhaps the only chance that Democrats have to turn Plan B into Plan B-plus. The only prediction I’d make is that ping-pong will happen quickly, or not at all.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.