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12.17.09

The Man Cheering Obama's Health-Care Woes

The left's anger over the public option and the anti-Obama revolt is long overdue, says Ralph Nader. Benjamin Sarlin talks to the self-professed "pioneer" of the current progressive rage.

Democrats are steaming over the White House’s capitulation to liberal nemesis Joe Lieberman’s demands to remove a public option and Medicare buy-in from the Senate’s heath-care bill. Progressive figures including Howard Dean and Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas have gone so far as to suggest scrapping the bill entirely and starting over, sparking rebukes from White House officials like David Axelrod, who called such a move “insane” in a Morning Joe interview on MSNBC on Thursday. With polls already showing many Democrats planning on sitting out 2010 midterms, the conflict has drawn comparisons to Ralph Nader’s third-party run in 2000, which many Democrats blame for tipping the election to George W. Bush—and for leaving Lieberman to wreak havoc in the Senate.

This is all good news to Nader, a vocal critic of the bill who considers the health-care debate a turning point in the left’s relationship to Obama.

“This is what I meant a year ago when I said the next year will determine whether Barack Obama will be an Uncle Tom groveling before the demands of the corporations.”

The four-time presidential candidate said he was particularly encouraged Thursday morning, when he read Dean’s op-ed in The Washington Post.

“Good for Howard Dean,” Nader said, adding that his only criticism was the former Democratic National Committee chairman didn’t go after the bill hard enough.

Dana Goldstein: Howard Dean Splits the Left Nader favors a single-payer health-care system, but said he objected in particular to the Senate bill for many of the same reasons expressed by Dean. He reserved his harshest criticism for the individual mandate, which commentators like Ezra Klein say is necessary in some form to keep premiums at acceptable rates but which Nader says forces Americans to buy substandard insurance.

“It doesn’t have a drug-reimportation provision, it doesn’t have a public option, it doesn’t have a Medicare buy-in, and in the House they lost a number of provisions,” he said. “Basically it’s a massive new subsidy to the health-insurance industry to deliver millions of customers, including those who will be forced to buy junk insurance policies.”

Proponents of the bill have noted that many Americans with preexisting conditions will no longer be barred from purchasing insurance, putting a stop to one of the most reviled practices under the current system. Nader said he believes the bill still doesn’t go far enough to protect Americans from discrimination, citing Dean’s argument in his op-ed that even though those with preexisting conditions might benefit, insurance companies could still charge older customers rates up to three times higher than younger ones.

Nader instead recommended that legislators and the White House scrap the bill entirely and embark on a nationwide tour to generate grassroots support for single-payer health care, which they would then attempt to pass through reconciliation, which requires only a bare majority in the Senate. Given the narrow margins for even the House bill, which requires only a majority to pass, the prospect seems politically unthinkable—but Nader insists that it could be done.

“You go all out, you use your evidence, you put your human-interest stories in the papers, the people who are suffering, who’ve been denied benefits, who were told they couldn’t get into the hospital without writing a huge check first, and you lead! You lead!” he said, his voice rising to a shout.

Nader, who has been viciously critical of Obama since before his inauguration, said he was encouraged to see many of the president’s campaign allies beginning to turn on his agenda.

“Is the title of your article ‘I told you so?’” he asked. “This is what I meant a year ago when I said the next year will determine whether Barack Obama will be an Uncle Tom groveling before the demands of the corporations that are running our country or he’ll be an Uncle Sam standing up for the American people.”

Nader cited a number of cases in which he was encouraged to see people he considered loyal Democrats stand up to their lawmakers on principle.

“Markos, he finally turns around—this guy is an indentured servant of the Democratic Party, and he’s finally breaking. [Arianna Huffington] is chirping up,” he said. “And they go a long way—they’ve given Obama the biggest elastic band in Democratic Party history and it’s reaching the point of snapping.”

He added that MSNBC’s Ed Schultz and Keith Olbermann were also “starting to break,” although he acknowledged that he still has trouble getting invited on their shows.

Nader, who is considering a third-party run in Connecticut against Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), said the health-care revolt has generated more interest in his campaign, but he has yet to make up his mind if he’ll run—or if he’ll seek the White House again in 2012. As for whether growing disillusionment with the two major parties might provide him with fuel for a comeback after being cast as a pariah in 2000, Nader suggested it might be a bridge too far.

“The person who told them the earliest is decisively ignored,” he said. “But that’s the burden of a pioneer. It’s always been in politics.”

Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.