The Best We Can Do

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why is it that it is easier to take the country into war without justification than it is to ensure that every American is entitled to health care? Progressives are being cautioned not to squeal too loud over the admittedly watered-down health care proposals inching their way through Congress because they are "the best we can do", and the nature of our system is deliberate and incremental and we need to get a foot in the door, the camel's nose under the tent, half a loaf, not sacrificing the good in search of the perfect, just pick your metaphor.

We are told there are not 60 votes for a "robust" public option and we have watched the kabuki dance of the past nine months of trying to partner up with a Republican, any Republican so that we can at least pretend that there is something resembling bi-partisanship. And while in the end that seems to be a fruitless exercise, we have assiduously pursued a compromise that at least all Democrats can embrace. Of course there seems to be nothing short of the status quo that will satisfy the Independent Senator from Connecticut, even though he caucuses with the Democrats and maintains the benefits of affiliating with the majority party for purposes of Committee seniority, but I am sure that will be resolved in due time. It sure is a lot of work, making historic, landmark changes that is.

Yet, we entered an unjustified war of choice, not necessity, with much less deliberation and incrementalism, and a healthy dose of bipartisanship. We put the country first, damn the costs, and we joined together against a common enemy: terror. Well, terror is the fear of not being able to cover loved ones who might need hospitalization or medical care. My point is that as bulky and inefficient as our system is, we can move with all deliberate speed if we view doing such as critically important, and I just have a hard time seeing how it is that there are some who view the price of action more politically harmful than the price of inaction.

I have been around long enough to know and accept the limitations of our systems of governance and politics. And I certainly do not envy the Obama Administration's conundrum here. Like the proverbial man with a shovel trailing the elephants down Main Street, Obama is placed in the position of having to clean up an enormous amount of detritus from the failed policies of the past eight years. It is necessary to do so not so they don't step in it, but because they don't want us to step in it. Unfortunately, it isn't just the elephants, but the horses, and the hippos, and all the other wild things that comprised the Bush policy circus whose odious remnants are cast about the Boulevard of Progress.

It is frustrating that we simply do not have the political will to face the future, and make no mistake, those who are having trouble bringing the nation into the family of civilized nations, which is to say the rest of the world, that do protect their citizens from the ravages of inadequate health coverage will have to wrestle with an increasingly hostile and cynical electorate.

It is frustrating that after all of these months of posturing, negotiating, courting, cajoling, and finessing, with all the customizing, modifying, and tweaking, combined with the gyrations and machinations of seemingly endless compromises, at the end of the day we are left with no opposition support, a stunningly sour policy proposal, and an enduring search for the 60th vote. But that is the price of democracy.

I sincerely hope, and maybe just naively wish, that despite the unsatisfactory nature of the product to many, we are actually witnessing a victory over the pungent influence of moneyed interests by a popular uprising that has seen serious reform of health care as a moral imperative. The entrenched status quo in Washington, DC is strong indeed. The influence of the health care industry is vast and rapacious and the political polarization is toxic. Against these odds, we are actually preparing to peel back at least one layer of the onion that is the current health care system. And from here we go on to similarly contentious issues such as climate change, escalation of the war in Afghanistan, and reform of the financial system. We will need large shovels indeed.

But progressives need not despair, it is crucial that we continue to exert political influence on a political system that is fractured, if not broken. The most short-sighted thing we could do would be to simply give up. The worst we could do would be to actively reject what is at best a tenuous solution that could lead to a more effective resolution in time. We cannot allow the pace of change to affect our commitment to the ultimate goal of universal, affordable health care. But we can affect the pace.

Last weekend I spent some time with Tom Friedman at a forum on energy in which he reiterated his wish that at least for one day we could be China and proscribe solutions from the top down. This is an intriguing if not treacherous proposition. As we saw in the period following 9/11 we can operate with ruthless efficiency and speed when confronted with a bona fide crisis, hence our invasion of Iraq. What is missing in the health care and energy crises that are with us is the lack of political will to acknowledge and confront them in a unified way. What is dramatically problematic is that the current reality suggests that consensus within the ruling party may be "the best we can do", and even that is difficult. And while patience is a virtue, the American electorate's appetite for change seems to be more voracious than that of its elected representatives. For those Democrats still on the fence it is crucial to remember that the political price for inaction is usually exacted from the ruling party.