Bipartisanship -- is it worth it?


President Obama could go two ways on health care. Let's consider his options.

He could say, essentially, that, look, I won this election by a pretty wide margin after promising major health care reform. Voters have given my party a 60-vote majority in the Senate, counting the independents who organize with us because they much prefer us to the Republicans.

Thus we have a compelling public need coinciding with a compelling public mandate and a rare opportunity.

We have provided in the Senate for passing health care reform legislation as part of the budget reconciliation process, which means we can do it by a simple majority vote and prevent a Republican filibuster.

So we Democrats will write this health care bill the way we like and firmly believe to be best -- and that will include a public insurer to add essential cost-saving pressures to the marketplace -- and then we will knock heads in our party to get 51 votes. Nancy Pelosi has us covered in House.

We are willing to take full and exclusive ownership of this reform because we believe it is right and we believe in putting ourselves on the line.

We're going to get beaten up by the Republicans either way. We may as well give them something to beat us up over.

Or Obama could say:

I believe in bipartisanship. I've said that all along. Something as epic as reforming health care, which touches everyone in America on the most basic of human needs -- something that composes what amounts to nearly a fifth of our economy -- must not be undertaken by one party cramming something down the throat of the other.

We cannot dismiss 45 percent of the voters on something affecting the health care of 100 percent of the people.

So I'm going to stay out of the details, considering how poorly it went for Hillary back in 1993 when she got altogether too hands-on.

I will lean on Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, chairman of the Finance Committee, who tells me he believes he can sit down privately with four or five Republican members and bring along at least a couple of them on some negotiated version of what I would prefer ideally.

It may be that, instead of a pure public option, we will establish regional private-sector co-operatives.

That's hardly my ideal or preference, but I'll take it in exchange for even a trace of the bipartisanship I covet.

Then we might go with that idea by Olympia Snowe, that entirely pleasant and reasonable Republican from Maine, to trigger a public insurance plan only if the private sector insurers and these new co-operatives don't meet targets for insuring the currently uninsured and holding down costs.

Obama's heart leans to the former. His mind has him fixated on the latter.

He believes Democrats will be more electorally vulnerable in the short term if they undertake on an exclusively partisan basis a force-fed policy that Republicans are labeling socialism and widely decrying for its exorbitant cost.

But this could well come down to a dubious choice -- one measly Republican, Olympia Snowe, or a public option she'll want to hold only as leverage, not immediately create.

In modern times the pursuit of bipartisanship usually has been more trouble than it's been worth. You spend all your time trying to land a handful of converts; meantime the opposition spends all its time plotting to destroy you for whatever you propose without regard for any bipartisan recruits won in the pointless margins.

Don't forget how well it went for Obama when he brought that Republican senator, New Hampshire's Judd Gregg, into the Cabinet.

Why, he got literally hours of faithful service.

John Brummett, an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock, is author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.

 

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