Dems’ lesser evil on health

But Democrats don’t have an option on healthcare. They are trapped in an old cliché: Any lawmaker who supported either of the House or Senate reform bills is already pregnant. The polling that shows a majority of Americans opposed to it, the unseemly tactics they will have to use in finishing the job — the nasty conclusion will be more damaging than the ugly process thus far. But Democrats are without a choice; this baby is just going to keep growing.

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It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) was going to be Health and Human Services secretary and pass reform with the help of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). The bill-signing was to be the picture of Democratic triumph. Instead, a Republican won Kennedy’s seat last week in a historic upset, panicking Democrats and placing healthcare reform, once considered a sure victory for the party, on hold at the chopping block.

Yet the consequences of inaction would be more devastating to the Democratic Party than losing dozens of seats in the midterm elections this fall or even the majority in the House. Without reform they are the party of Wall Street, the drug industry, of bailouts and deficits and infighting over abortion, a party that tried to overreach on energy and healthcare but ultimately couldn’t get anything done.

Unelected Democrats, including Daschle, are begging lawmakers to hold their nose and jump off the cliff. David Plouffe, manager of President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, said Democrats will be attacked by Republicans no matter what they do. Paul Begala echoed Plouffe, writing: “You’re going to get the attack anyway, you may as well get the accomplishment. I don’t mean to be rude, but if healthcare is the kiss of death, you’ve already been kissed.”

Is it possible that later, in a less hostile political environment, Democrats can repackage the bad memories of healthcare reform and sell it as an integral component of economic security? Sure. Is it possible voters will give Democrats credit in 2010 for seeing the error of their ways and dumping an effort they devoted a year to during an economic crisis? Not a chance.

Some Democrats want to start over, allowing reform to drag out more months, hoping Republicans will suddenly reach across the aisle. But count on Republicans — seeing political dividends for blocking the healthcare bill — to view compromise as capitulation. A package of consumer protections designed to rein in the insurance industry, ending lifetime caps on coverage and denial of coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, would mean covering more sick people, and therefore increased costs. To avoid those costs, risk must be spread and everybody must buy insurance. But Republicans don’t want a mandate to purchase coverage or subsidies to pay for it.

There will be no bipartisan bill. So if Democrats made healthcare reform a priority for decades and spent 16 years lamenting the Clinton administration’s failure to deliver it, if it is key to controlling the deficit, creating jobs and expanding the social safety net, and if they believe history will vindicate them, they should be willing to lose over it now.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.