Former Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean fired one of the clearest warning shots at hesitant Democratic lawmakers on Thursday, insisting that if the party was unable to produce a health care bill with a public plan, there would be electoral consequences.
"I do think there will be primaries as the result of all this, if the bill doesn't pass with a public option," Dean said, in a phone interview with the Huffington Post.
The former Vermont governor added the caveat that he thought "cooler heads" would ultimately prevail and that a government run option for insurance coverage would be passed. But his remarks are some of the most threatening yet to be directed at Democrats from within the party.
Dean, who is a keynote speaker at the Netroots Nation conference at Pittsburgh this week, said he was "in favor" of holding recalcitrant senators and congressman accountable on health care related issues.
As he has done before, Dean criticized talk of substituting a government run program with co-operative insurance plans, calling the latter a "fig leaf."
"This talk about co-ops is a political compromise it is not a policy compromise," he said, of the discussions currently underway in the Senate Finance Committee. "And I think most people, on both sides of the aisle know that co-ops won't work."
Asked about a column by long-time Democratic strategist Paul Begala, urging progressives not to shy away from tackling health care in a more incremental approach, Dean shot back: "The public option is incrementalism.... But there is no incrementalism without the public option." He explained: "If you don't have a public option this bill is not even incremental, in terms of adequate health care reform... Paul is not entirely wrong. It is just that the last shred of reform is the public option."
As for the reported deal between the White House and Big Pharma, in which the government would refrain from using its purchasing power to lower drug price in exchange for $80 billion to expand coverage and help with reform, Dean called the topic a "side show."
"I'm not going to comment on those things," he said. "I'm not going to make other criticisms. Would I do this bill differently? Sure, read my book. But I'm not going to criticize the House or the Senate because they have the hard job to do. They have to vote. They have to make all these different constituency groups mad."
Dean was more willing to weigh in on the eruption of town hall protests and spreading of disinformation about the president's health care agenda by conservative media figures and lawmakers. He said he was "disappointed" in Sen. Chuck Grassley, (R-Iowa) - one of the chief Republican negotiators on the Senate Finance Committee - for perpetuating the patently false rumor that Obama was setting up death panels that would "pull the plug on grandma."
For Dean, those remarks only confirmed a long obvious reality. "I think the Republicans have no interest and they have never had an interest in a bill," he said. "[Sen.] Jim DeMint, (R-S.C.), spoke for the Republican Party when he said what we want is to make this Obama's Waterloo. It is exactly what they did 15 years ago. They don't have an interest in the bill because they believe they can hurt Obama. They have basically put their party ahead of the country."
All of which, he concluded, might not be a bad thing in the long run. The earlier the White House realizes it's negotiating against itself, the quicker it can produce a bill that better satisfies the people who actually got the president elected.