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And if the Democrats do nothing at all?

It’s always possible that conventional wisdom is more conventional than wise. After all, there’s more conventionality than wisdom in our midst.

Keep that in mind as Democrats feverishly negotiate a delicately diced health care reform compromise.

Democrats seek consensus against three counteracting factors — the vexing complexity, fear and the nagging fact that Democrats are not a coalesced majority party, but instead a finessed one that seeks to span, in the U.S. Senate’s Democratic caucus alone, socialist Bernie Sanders and McCain twin Joe Lieberman.

They toil madly for some solution — some days it seems that almost any solution will do — on the conventional wisdom that it would be politically fatal for them if they failed on their signature issue.

But would it be politically fatal? And is it really so that health care is Democrats’ signature issue?

No, actually.

Barack Obama got elected because of an unpopular war and because the economy melted down. He will be re-elected only if fortunes improve on what is any president’s real signature issue, the economy, and, in his specific case, in Afghanistan.

What also will matter is the eventual political match-up presented to voters. It’s hard to imagine the economy being in such a mess that the country would turn for its next president to Mike Huckabee or Sarah Palin.

Health care matters greatly not as politics, but as substantive policy. We need to curb its cost and extend the insurance for it because we cannot long afford, both as government and individuals, the current curve.

But might there come a point at which Democrats’ negotiations would become so finely diced in mad pursuit of tenuous majorities that the bill would be worthless or even counterproductive as policy, thus best abandoned politically?


Let’s say the Democrats backed all the way to a bill that banned denials of coverage based on pre-existing conditions, but did not mandate that individuals get insurance or pay meaningful fines for the failure to do so.

You’d end up with young people declining to get insurance until they became seriously ill, at which time they would be free to help themselves to the best deal available in this new health care exchange.

That would be like allowing people to buy cheap car insurance as they drove off a cliff.

It could be that Democrats would so dilute a new government insurer, the so-called “public option,” that it would exist only for the sake of its existence. One can easily imagine the over-messaged creation of a public option that would fail to accomplish the vital task of introducing stiff new competition in the health insurance marketplace.

Rural politicians are worried about low-balled Medicare-like reimbursement rates from a public option that would hurt their rural hospitals and clinics. So they exert pressure to make sure a new public option would be arbitrarily required to be more generous than Medicare. These rural politicians have ready allies in pro-business politicians worried about the private health insurers with their good and popular lobbyists.

A law for the sake of a law is not likely to be a good law.

Democratic failure on health care would be tragic, yes, but for all citizens, not for Democrats as candidates. It would represent a squandered opportunity on maybe our last, best hope.

But it would be a trumpeted political story only for a few weeks, and then only in the raging mimicry of conventional wisdom. It would not be politically decisive in the longer term with regular people who hardly know what to think, anyway, about opt-ins, opt-outs and triggers.

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and 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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