The Coming Liberal Suicide

As Democrats blast Obama over the public option, they risk destroying the policy they’ve been hoping for for years. John Avlon on the party’s fatal mistake.

08.20.09 2:06 PM ET

As Democrats blast Obama over the public option, they risk destroying the policy they’ve been hoping for for years. John Avlon on the party’s fatal mistake. Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.

Liberals revolt against a Democratic president’s pragmatism. Self-defeating stupidity ensues.

We’ve seen this movie before. Here’s a highlight soundbite: “The idea of all or nothing has been pursued now for nearly three decades. No one has benefitted from that.”

That was Jimmy Carter back in 1979, proposing phased-in health-care reform, creating insurance for catastrophic illness. He was opposed by Ted Kennedy and the unions who wanted to hold out for a Canadian-style single-payer system on the grounds that Carter’s plan was “too inequitable.” There were 18 million uninsured Americans then. Now there are 46 million.

In a half-century of failed health-care reforms, liberal cannibalism has been as much to blame for defeats as fear-mongering from the far right.

But still some liberals are pursuing an all-or-nothing approach to health-care reform, with 60 House Democrats sending a letter to Obama HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius stating that any health-care legislation “MUST contain a public option.” “Democrats drawing a line in the sand against conservatives in their own party?” Rachel Maddow intoned, “Pinch me, I’m dreaming.”

Time for a wake-up call. With all the hate-filled hyperbole festering around the summer’s health-care debate (Hitler references now seem to appear almost daily), it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that there is essentially one substantive sticking point separating the center from the left: the public option.

That’s the proposal that is acting as the thin-edge of the wedge in conservatives’ apparently effective argument that health-care reform represents a slippery slope toward socialism.

Remove that plank and replace it with a nonprofit cooperative based on local models that have existed in the heartland for decades—as a bipartisan group of senators has proposed—and the reasonable edge of the opposition evaporates along with most of the cost.

The creation of a nonprofit co-op—run by its members—would cost an estimated $6 billion in startup seed capital from the government. In contrast, the public-insurance option—run by a new government bureaucracy—would cost between $500 billion and $1 trillion in taxpayer dollars. If you take the president’s pledge that any health-care overhaul will be deficit neutral seriously—or if you can read a poll or balance a checkbook—you’ll quickly see that the difference isn’t trivial. It’s a fight about adding another trillion dollars to the deficit.

There are just two problems with this common ground compromise alternative: the far left and the far right.

Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America. By John Avlon. 304 pages. Beast Books. $15.95.

Liberals are arguing that without the public option there is essentially no health-care reform. That’s absurd—President Obama was right when he said this weekend that the public option was “one sliver” of health-care reform. A nonprofit co-op is another means to the end of offering uninsured individuals and families an alternative to private insurance companies as a way to increase competition and drive down costs. The reason liberals are kicking back so hard against it is that it does not achieve their desired ideological end—a step toward the Canadian-style single-payer system that Ted Kennedy and Co. held out for three decades ago.

In the run to the ramparts, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) went on with CNN’s Campbell Brown in the first wave of the pushback, arguing that liberals had already compromised and wouldn’t go any further even at the president’s request. “No one can say that we're not willing to compromise. …We did that on single-payer.”

But that’s a concession to reality, not to Republicans or Blue Dog Democrats. The single-payer plan may be the fondest wish for the far left but it’s a non-starter in the rest of the nation. That’s why the RNC is already at work trying to paint even the co-op as government-run health care. Republicans want to keep the boogeyman of socialized medicine alive as long as they can. They want to run against the public option because they know it is a fight they can win. If Obama embraced a proposal like medical-malpractice reform, performing a bit of political judo, they wouldn’t know what to do.

But the fact that even the rumor of single-payer is being used to derail a health-care overhaul at large is lost on the left. Witness New York Rep. Anthony Weiner, who took to the airwaves to argue that not only would health-care reform without the public option fail to pass the Democratic House, but that getting insurance companies out of the health-care business entirely was his ultimate goal. A combination of horror and hilarity ensued. Here’s an exchange from MSNBC’s Morning Joe:

Scarborough: You are making the point of the people at the town-hall meetings who say this is Barack Obama’s opportunity to get rid of private health care and turn it completely over to the government. I’m sitting here stunned, saying ‘Oh My God, you’re making the point of the health-care protesters.’

Weiner: If Barack Obama doesn’t want to do it, I want to do it.

On Hardball later in the day, Weiner channeled his inner Karl Rove, arguing that ramming health-care reform through on a narrow party-line vote with a public option was not only doable but desirable, saying, “I think we can do it with 51 in the Senate.”

When Chris Matthews asked him if “the government will still function if you try to jam this through with 51 votes,” Weiner answered, “I think it will.” That’s a pretty slim reed to try to hang the fate of an administration. It’s the mark of ideologically irresponsible liberals like Bella Abzug, who legendary centrist Democrat New York Sen. Pat Moynihan once described as “those who want to ruin if they cannot rule.”

The source of this disconnect can be found in this statistic, courtesy of Michael Barone: Of the 21 top Democratic House leadership members and chairmen, five come from districts carried by John McCain, but the average vote in the other 16 districts was 71 percent to 27 percent for Obama. Like Los Angeles’ Maxine Waters and New York’s Anthony Weiner, they are ideologically and geographically insulated from the skepticism generating from the great middle of the country.

It’s a mistake that the architect of Medicaid and Medicare, Lyndon Johnson, never made. A Southern Democrat—sometimes derided by liberals as an “Eisenhower Democrat” when he was Majority Leader of the Senate—understood the need for bipartisan support for any major social reforms: His Medicare bill received the support of 70 House Republicans and 16 Senate Republicans. Even Newt Gingrich got it—his Welfare reforms gained the support of 101 Democrats at the high-water mark of the second Republican Revolution.

Liberals are in deep denial about the source of the president’s falling poll numbers during this summer’s health-care debate. They think the problem—perceptions of arrogant over-reaching liberalism—is the cure. It’s the same self-serving mistake that the extremes always make.

President Obama needs to depolarize the health-care debate. He got off-message because he got off-center. Embracing a bipartisan bill that replaces the public option with a nonprofit co-op will not “muddy” the debate but help clarify it. It will not be a retreat but a way forward.

Lyndon Johnson once joked that “the difference between liberals and cannibals is that cannibals don’t eat their friends and family members.” In half-century-long history of failed health-care reforms from Harry Truman on down, liberal cannibalism has been as much to blame for defeats as fear-mongering from the far right.

The perfect cannot be the enemy of the good. The goal is to decrease costs and increase coverage. If today’s liberals don’t understand the lesson of their own political history and insist on attacking their president, they will have the failure of this health-care reform on their hands.

John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. He writes a weekly column for The Daily Beast. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.