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Why Bad Healthcare Policy Makes For Bad Politics, Too

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Like you, dear reader, I have watched in horror and confusion as the nutty Sarah Palin wing of the Republican Party has sent vacationing Democrats scurrying for cover. The fodder for so many SNL parodies we thought were well mocked and deeply buried reemerge. According to the papers of record, the angry white man (and wife) making accusations of communism, fascism and euthanasia are signs of a tectonic political shift, a changing momentum. Obama has been caught flat-footed, they write, grasping for the correct strategy that will quash this unsettling freak show. Pundits ferret out tactical missteps and well-wishers propose technocratic solutions for a poll-driven establishment -- why can't Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod figure this one out?

The Democrats seem hobbled by small-scale protests that would have been quickly dispatched with teargas and mass arrests had they come from the Left. The Teabagging-Birthmen have saved some of their sharpest barbs for the Senatorial gerontocracy, issuing threats of hypothetical death under "Obamacare." The fabulous "Death Panel" lies have become the story, winning the day by virtue of being seriously considered. If only the Left's fact-based claims against disastrous, NAFTA-style trade agreements received such vigorous media attention. Investors Business Daily went so far as to use Stephen Hawking to slander the British National Health Service, saying that the physicist would have died under the socialized system. Hawking, of course, is British, and credits the NHP with keeping him alive.

But the problem here is not bad strategy -- it's crappy policy. Obama's healthcare plan -- full of odd stakeholder triangulations, backroom deals with Big Pharma, and lavish concessions to Chairman Baucus and private insurers -- is confusing and falls way short of the campaign's lofty rhetoric. Establishment pols say political infeasibility makes single-payer healthcare a non-starter, but the recent political tragicomedy unfolding in VFWs and gymnasiums across America have only left the Left dispirited and brought the Right, smelling blood, to the warpath.

The spontaneous grassroots energy of 2008 has evaporated. Only some unions and groups with built-in mobilizing capacity (and long-term relationships of institutional dependency with the Democratic Party) are confronting the Don't-Tread-On-Mees en masse. And things are only getting worse; the political stupidity of responding to a non-existent mass constituency, so-called "centrism," advances towards its perverse end: The "public option," almost the only good thing about this proposal, is going to be dropped.

But this is the bed the Administration (and the inside-the-Beltway institutional Left) made for itself. Instead of demanding what we know is best (single-payer universal healthcare) and compromising on a not so great improvement (a public option competing against the private vampires), the big Left-of-Center institutions started out with middling demands, and here we are, left with nothing.

As the teabaggers make clear, this is about a whole lot more than healthcare. For the town hall crashers, healthcare is a proxy fight in a broader war of attrition that seeks nothing short of an early hobbling -- nay, overthrow -- of Obama. Yet without a healthcare plan that's worth standing up for, I don't think I'm down for confronting the crazies, utterly terrifying though they may be. We should be willing to compromise, but the absence of a public option would be pure capitulation.