Monday, August 24, 2009

How the public option died

Like a lot of people on both sides of the healthcare reform debate, I've come to the conclusion that the so-called "public option" is dead, politically. The president is in a real bind: He can't satisfy the left without the public option, which has come to be seen as a litmus test for liberal bona fides. He probably can't get anything through the House that lacks a public-option provision. Nancy Pelosi has said as much. But he can't get the public option through the Senate without that body abandoning its 60-votes-to-pass-anything tradition, a move even the Republicans (when they controlled the Senate) contemplated only in the context of judicial appointments, and even then never actually went through with.

In other words, there's real doubt now that the president will get anything through Congress.

You know you're in trouble when the liberals and conservatives have more or less stopped fighting over the substance of your plan and are now fighting over how you lost the argument, but that's pretty much where things stand as the Obamas vacation on Martha's Vineyard. Political scientist Thomas Schaller offers his analysis from the left and Peggy Noonan supplies hers from the right.

If I were advising the president, I'd tell him to forget the dealmakers who want him to accept some half-baked basket of modest, easy regulatory updates that won't affect real change in healthcare but would are instead designed to allow him a way of claiming victory. That would truly be disastrous.

Personally, I'm against the public option but I would nevetheless tell him that he no longer has anything to lose by throwing his full weight behind it. If he wants it, he might as well go for it. Serious reform is probably unattainable this year so he may as well go down fighting for what he really wants. If by some miracle he gets his public option through the Senate, he wins. (He may not like the spoils of victory, but that problem is for another day.) If not, he'll at least be able to say to his left that he tried. Then, after the midterms, he can come back with a proposal that has a decent shot at passing both chambers -- one that shows he's able to not only think outside the box but come right back to an issue even after losing, and be better, sharper, more effective. Shove the Waterloo comment right down Jim DeMint's throat. Now that would be leadership.

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