If human beings were purely rational actors, people would never enter into a mortgage contract they did not understand and our elected officials would be motivated entirely by policy – and not political – considerations.
In such a world, bipartisanship would be the norm because these Vulcan legislators would never have to worry about out-of-context sound bites that could be used against them in re-election campaigns by political opponents.
Instead, these legislators would evaluate every issue (and read the text of every single bill) and after much deliberative thought cast votes they deem best for their constituents.
Now, every politician running for office short of Bullworth swears on all that is holy that this is, in fact, how she or he conducts business.
But in reality, these men and women run in an endless popularity contest and have to face the electorate in a 24/7 sound bite news cycle.
And it is this phenomenon which presents the White House with its best opportunity to pass meaningful health care reform – but only if President Obama takes off the gloves and plays hardball with some of his own allies.
Within a few weeks, members of the House and Senate will return to their home states for August recess, where they will be treated to a barrage of special interest advertising that will make Harry and Louise seem quaint.
The status-quo spin machine has already gone into full gear, saying a public option for health care will lead to a single-payer system, socialized medicine, rationed care and all but a return to the barber-surgeon of medieval days.
In truth, a public health option is not the radical plan some have suggested. It will force greater competition among private health insurance plans – hardly the selfless purveyors of healthcare its proponents have suddenly made them out to be. This competition will inherently provide greater choice and lower health care costs, the key to getting our long-term fiscal house in order. Most importantly, it will provide access to preventative health care for the tens of millions of Americans who are now uninsured.
One of the reasons the White House wanted this reform passedquickly is because Administration officials understand that delay represents death by a thousand political cuts.
The largely meritless scare tactics perpetuated by defenders of the status quo have already met with some success.
Today, though Democrats nominally control a 60 vote Senate majority, there are not enough votes to get a bill with a public option through if any of those caucusing with the Democrats join in a united Republic filibuster of the bill.
Here is where President Obama must drop the political hammer in service of good policy. Obama knows that the road to legislative oblivion is filled with good policy intentions but poorly executed political exertion. From a political standpoint, polling shows that there is vast voter support for a public option. Say what you will about George W. Bush, he was able to get a large slice of his agenda passed without having nearly the mandate from voters or the majorities in congress this president enjoys. Obama needs to stop acting like the prime minister of the senate and begin acting like a chief executive who can and should use his political clout and skills to inject some members of the Democratic caucus with a little bit of courage.
The challenge for Democratic leaders is not to pick off a few Republican votes but to keep their own rank and file on the same page. Obama may want to take a trip to Louisiana over August recess and point out to Senator Mary Landrieu and his traveling press pool that a whopping 20% of Louisiana residents have no health insurance whatsoever.
He may want to also swing by Connecticut and invite Senator Joe Lieberman to stand beside him as he explains that over 9% of the residents of his state, one of the wealthiest in the nation, are not covered. Both these senators caucus with the Democrats and yet have publicly opposed a public option for health care. Only the president carries a megaphone loud enough to make it clear that it is their constituents who will be most hurt by continuing the status quo. And make no mistake – the status quo will largely continue if these senators unite with the Republicans to kill a public option that competes with private health insurance companies.
Congress may pass some kind of health care reform bill this year. The question is whether that legislation will live up to the lofty rhetoric we hear so often from political speechwriters. It’s time the president and Democratic leaders in Congress spend some of that capitol the voters gave them and stop compromising real reform to death.
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Julie Roginsky is a CNBC contributor who has extensive experience in government, politics and public relations on both the federal and state levels including serving as the Washington communications director for former Senator Jon Corzine.