Should the Democrats start over on healthcare?

Lefties who oppose a reform compromise remind me a little bit of Nader voters in 2000 who spurned Al Gore


Joan Walsh
December 16, 2009 12:16PM (UTC)

Let me be clear: I despise what Joe Lieberman is doing to healthcare reform, in the service of his insurance industry masters and his own wounded (by the Democratic left who drove him from the party) ego. I am sad and disappointed by the prospect of a healthcare reform bill that includes neither a public option nor a Medicare buy-in for those 55-64. The bill needs both, and then some. I completely agree with Glenn Greenwald: President Obama deserves much of the blame for the debacle, for failing to fight vigourously for a public option in the first place.

But I'm also worried about the left's rush to abandon the likely healthcare reform compromise. The fight isn't over; Senate progressives should try to get a better bill; if the likely disappointing bill passes, House progressives should fight like hell to get the public option and other measures to expand insurance and cut costs back into whatever bill is on the table.

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However: I have seen a cavalcade of lefty surrender in the last two days, with people who ought to know better insisting it's time to defeat the Senate bill (which means the current proposals wouldn't go to conference, to be improved by the House) rather than compromise. And I really don't get it. On MSNBC's "The Ed Show" Tuesday, Arianna Huffington argued that progressives should kill the compromised Senate bill, and I ... well, I asked what that would accomplish. And I still don't know. Some of the complaints are starting to remind me of progressives who backed Ralph Nader in 2000, because there was no difference between George W. Bush and Al Gore. (Text continues after video, below): 

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I have been here on Salon since mid-summer, haranguing Obama and the Democrats to fight for meaningful reform and a robust public option. While few people were really paying attention, in July, I voiced my disappointment with Obama's failure to lay out core principles of his own healthcare reform plans. During the summer of "town hells," I repeated that lament; I think Obama's silence, rather than empowering his Democratic caucus, left them exposed and let the rowdy right define his bill with their own signature insanity: Socialist death panels and mandatory high school abortion clinics, here we come.

So Obama has much to answer for. But that's behind us. Now we have the reality of the already inadequate Senate bill needing 60 votes it won't get. And so we've got President Lieberman dictating the terms of the bill. It's disgraceful, when you look at what the Democratic base has voted for since 2006 (when Lieberman was forced to run as an independent when he lost the Democratic nomination).

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I can get very stirred up by all of that. But I can also say this: The core provisions of the Senate bill -- expanding coverage to perhaps 30 million people; doing away with insurance company discrimination against those with preexisting conditions, preventing them from cruelly throwing the insured who suddenly need coverage off the rolls, and abolishing caps on insurance coverage (caps would seem to be the opposite of insurance) -- those are important accomplishments.

I admit: I'm afraid that building in an insurance mandate, but not any kind of public option that might bring down costs, could make this whole plan backfire. Maybe it will turn out to be a huge giveaway to the insurance companies, and taxpayers as well as the newly insured will rebel against Obama and the Democrats for passing it. That's a real worry. I have made that case myself in arguing for the public option over the last few months.

But I also can't look away from the possibility of helping insure another 30 million people and protecting a whole lot more from discrimination and abandonment when they need insurance most. This may be the best choice we get for a long time. And I have been challenging myself and other people to answer the question: Has there ever been a time liberals have defeated a basically liberal but disappointing set of reforms, only to be able to implement something more liberal later?

And I don't know of anything like that. When liberals and conservatives united to defeat President Nixon's guaranteed-income Family Assistance Plan, I know people like me thought they were doing the best they could to protect welfare families from possible encroachment on their benefits. But years later, a guaranteed income seems like socialism. That was before my time; but I also remember when electing Ronald Reagan, while disappointing, was going to herald an era of lefty rebellion; but that never happened either; we got George H.W. Bush and then Bill Clinton's accommodating triangulation, which hid his social democratic aspirations so well that no one could find them. And after the defeat of Clinton's healthcare reform efforts, Democrats came back even more timid this time around -- 15 years later.

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I'm also not convinced by arguments that Democrats can kill the bill, and then use the failure of healthcare reform in 2010 against the Republicans. They have shown no capacity to hang the GOP with "the party of no" label it deserves. Instead, after holding the White House and Congress for the first time in almost a generation, they will have shown themselves unable to pass meaningful reform. People can argue to kill the bill on its merits, but don't try to argue that it's good politics. Obama will look like a failure.

Make no mistake: Obama is caving to Blue Dog Democrats, Joe Lieberman and the insurance lobby. But if you don't like that, then go into the districts of those faux-Democrats and work against them. Work harder for campaign finance reform. Start thinking about getting behind a genuinely progressive primary opponent for the president in 2012. (I think it's too early for that myself.) And for now, continue to lobby Congress to improve this bill. But vain boasts about how progressives can kill the bill, start over, and blame Republicans for the failure to pass reform are not convincing.

One footnote on the video: I was a little too hard on Howard Dean. I believe he's approaching this with integrity, and he may be right about a bad bill being worse than no bill at all. I still see a little bit of the Dean/Rahm Emanuel feud at work here, though, and I'm not ready for the Democrats to round up the circular firing squad quite yet. 

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Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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