After last year's elections, a Democratic operative told me that if the Democrats got to 59 seats in the Senate, it would be easy to peel off one or two Republicans to pass key legislation like serious health care reform. I was left wondering what political planet he'd been living on for the past three decades.
For almost as long as I've been in Washington (I arrived for the Associated Press in 1977) it has worked the other way. Even when the Republicans appear to be on the defensive and outnumbered, they band together and vote as a bloc, while Democrats bend over backwards to be "bipartisan."
This dynamic has continued into Barack Obama's presidency as he and the Democrats have watered down their proposals with the hope of winning over a few Republican votes so they can claim they achieved some bipartisanship, even if it means passing bills that are half-hearted half-measures.
That process dominated the debate over the $787 billion stimulus bill that the Democrats diluted with Republican tax cuts and shrank in size despite warnings from top economists that the package would fall far short of the needed boost in jobs, a bleak prediction that now appears to be coming true as unemployment climbs toward 10 percent.
In exchange for the weaker stimulus bill, the Democrats got three Republican votes in the Senate and none in the House. (The Republicans then drove one of those GOP senators, Arlen Specter, out of the party, though Specter still won't count himself as a reliable Democratic vote.)
The pattern of belligerent Republicans and timid Democrats is now repeating itself on health-care reform. Democrats first excluded from the debate the one measure that probably could save significant money - a single-payer system - and they now appear poised to trade away Obama's proposal for a "public option" to possibly garner a couple of Republican votes.
Though enacting a public option is favored by nearly three-quarters of the American people - and has the potential of at least saving some money by pressuring private insurers to rein in costs - Democrats are so entranced by the siren song of bipartisanship that they appear on the verge of scuttling it.
In doing so, the Democrats could well recreate the worst mistake of Hillary Clinton's failed health insurance plan of 1994. The fundamental flaw in her complex scheme was that it tried so hard not to harm the insurance industry that it wasn't clear how it would make matters any better - and the industry still torpedoed it with a misleading public relations campaign.
Today, the Obama administration and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus have been so proud of getting all the players to sit down at the table (with the exception of single-payer advocates who were excluded) that they have lost track of the hard reality that if the nation is really going to address its health care crisis, there will have to be some financial losers.
Right now, the losers are the tens of millions of uninsured and under-insured Americans, the doctors and nurses who are appalled at the cruelty of the U.S. medical system, and the U.S. businesses that pay for their employees' health insurance and thus are put at an economic disadvantage to their foreign competitors operating in countries that have single-payer systems.
Helping the Industry
For the status quo to change significantly, the private health insurance companies and other parts of the medical industrial complex must be compelled to extract savings from their bureaucratic waste and excess profits. To do that would require, at minimum, a robust "public option" that forces a revamping of the private health insurance business model.
Not surprisingly, the health insurance industry doesn't want to undergo such a transformation, so its lobbyists have leaned on the Republicans and a handful of "centrist" Democrats to either kill the "public option" or in Baucus's phrase "sculpt" it into something that doesn't threaten the industry.
That's where Sen. Kent Conrad's scheme of setting up "cooperatives" comes in. The North Dakota Democrat has proposed building from scratch a network of non-profit "cooperatives" that would lack both the size for administrative savings and the bargaining power to negotiate lower prices.
While a public option could piggyback on the Medicare bureaucracy to maximize savings and have the advantage of simplicity, the emerging Baucus-Conrad scheme would add an array of cooperatives to the already confusing mix of insurance plans. For many Americans, these new entities won't present an appealing alternative to private insurance.
If such a "compromise" emerges, a few Republicans might vote yes; the industry would be happy; and the Obama administration could have a "bipartisan" signing ceremony.
But the American people might find themselves left out of the celebration. The federal government might even compel the uninsured - under penalty of fines - to sign up with an existing insurance company whether they feel they can afford it or not. Mandated coverage could mean a big windfall for the insurance industry, pushing nearly 50 million new customers into its arms.
Eventually, however, the reality would sink in that very little had improved. Millions of Americans would understand that Washington protected the interests of a cold-hearted industry rather than fashion a health-insurance plan that would do the people much good. With that realization, many Americans would blame Obama and the Democrats.
On the other hand, if Obama demanded a public option and insisted on the support of his party, the dynamic might go very differently. If the Democrats assembled 59 votes for a strong plan - even if Republicans continue their obstruction of Al Franken's Senate election in Minnesota - that could turn the tables on "centrist" Republicans who would have to decide which side to take.
To get the Democrats to behave in such a disciplined and serious fashion, however, might require a backbone or brain transplant for many of them. But it's way past time for the Democrats to recognize that their obsession with bipartisanship is unrequited.
The Republicans have a very different agenda. Indeed, with the continuing pratfalls of their supposedly top-tier candidates - like South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's Argentine holiday with his mistress - they have only one genuine hope for the future of their party: President Obama must fail and the Democrats must take the blame.