Long before Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi began talking up health care reform as a top priority for the Democratic Party, Congress and America, Dennis Kucinich was doing so. Indeed, the former Cleveland mayor, Ohio legislator, two-time presidential candidate and now senior U.S. House members has across the past 35 years been one of the country's steadiest proponents of real reform of our broken health-care system.
So Kucinich's questioning of the reform legislation being advanced by President Obama and House Speaker Pelosi is neither casual nor uninformed.
The congressman from Ohio knows the intricacies of the health-care debate as well as any key player in Washington. And he objects to the compromises contained in the measure the president and the speaker are whipping House Democrats to support. "This bill doesn't change the fact that the insurance companies are going to keep socking it from the consumers," says Kucinich, who argues that, "The insurance companies are the problem and they are getting a bailout."
This is not a new complaint from Kucinich. Nor is it an unfounded concern.
Last fall, when the House was debating a better bill than the one Obama and Pelosi are now pushing, Kucinich raised objections that for the most part remain valid.
Reviewing the details of what would become the House version of reform legislation, he asked on the House floor: "Is this the best we can do? Forcing people to buy private health insurance, guaranteeing at least $50 billion in new business for the insurance companies?
Is this the best we can do? Government negotiates rates which will drive up insurance costs, but the government won't negotiate with the pharmaceutical companies which will drive up pharmaceutical costs...
Is this the best we can do? Eliminating the state single payer option, while forcing most people to buy private insurance.
If this is the best we can do? Then our best isn't good enough and we have to ask some hard questions about our political system: such as Health Care or Insurance Care? Government of the people or a government of the corporations.
Kucinich voted against the House bill, along with another passionate advocate for real reform, New York Congressman Eric Massa. Massa has resigned from the House, claiming that he was targeted by a White House that "(came) after me to get rid of me because my vote is the deciding vote in the health care bill." That leaves Kucinich in a lonely position. He's a progressive who favors fundamental reform, but he is not satisfied with the legislation as it now stands. As such, he finds himself targeted by an aggressive pressure campaign by White House aides and House Democratic whips.
But Kucinich's objections are sincere. And Obama and Pelosi would be wise to listen to them -- rather than simply try and "whip" the congressman to vote for legislation that can still be improved.
In particular, Kucinich has demanded that barriers to states developing single-payer "Medicare for All" programs be removed. Kucinich wants Congress to waive existing federal restrictions and to address federal laws that might be interpreted as supporting insurance company suits against states that provide more extensive coverage than is currently proposed by the president.
White House strategists and congressional leaders should know that Kucinich is not an outlier on this issue. The congressman has gained strong support for his practical proposals regarding state-based experimentation with "Medicare for All" initiatives -- on key House committees, among members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and from real-reform backers such as the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee, Progressive Democrats of America and Physicians for a National Healthcare Program.
This is not to say that Kucinich's approach is the right or wrong one. The point is that Obama, Pelosi and their lieutenants need to recognize that the congressman's dissents are based on principle. He is not seeking some sort of "Cornhusker kickback" or "Louisiana Purchase" deal. Rather, Kucinich is seeking to make what he sees as a flawed bill better.
As such, Democrats ought not be worrying so much about whipping him into shape as they should be listening to him -- and working with him. After all, what Kucinich is proposing is not extreme. It's what should be in the bill.