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For Democrats, the Future Hinges on Health Care

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The most recent New York Times/CBS poll finds support for Democrats on health care reform declining for the first time in recent memory. According to the study, "Americans are concerned that overhauling the health care system would reduce the quality of their care, increase their out-of-pocket health costs and tax bills and limit their options in choosing doctors, treatment and tests."

A progressive overhaul wouldn't lead to any of these things, but in politics falsehoods become truth if enough people believe them. The reality is that Republican tactics are slowly succeeding in obstructing and obfuscating the Democratic health care agenda -- for which favorability has been exceptionally high recently. Opponents of reform have reportedly spent $9 million on television ads so far to make this happen.

The conservative messaging campaign is thriving on misinformation and propaganda. They're using the same tactics they've used to kill health reform in the past, as well as undermine every existing major government initiative that has proven to be widely popular -- including Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. And although Friday's negotiations staved off some problematic concessions, it's working to a degree.

This is a wake-up call for the Democrats. They better get it together, because if not, Republicans might take back control of the debate, reversing the recent gains made by progressives. Don't forget that the two failed Democratic attempts at overhauling health care -- under Presidents Bill Clinton in the 1990s and Harry Truman in the 1940s -- both led to huge Republican takeovers of Congress.

This time, Democrats have much more going for them -- a popular president, commanding majorities in both chambers of Congress, and an usually high favorability advantage over Republicans. Poll after poll has shown huge support for a comprehensive overhaul--including a public option -- by most Democrats, Independents and even a majority of Republicans. So why can't Democrats get this done?

There are many answers to that question, but the most relevant one is they haven't played their cards right.

The first big mess-up was not even raising the prospect of single-payer in a serious way. This left the public option -- a half-decent solution -- as the most liberal idea, allowing conservatives to focus their attack machine on it. If Democrats made single-payer their opening bid, a public option would have ended up being a feasible compromise, leaving conservatives much less able to undermine it.

Another blunder was not negotiating a legislative framework with conservative Democrats before the debate went out-in-the-open for the medical-industrial complex to distort and corrupt. Success for the Democratic party is ultimately in the interests of all Democrats, and even more so for the ones who represent conservative regions -- because their constituents, if discouraged, would be least hesitant to defect to Republicans.

Currently Blue Dogs and key Senate Democrats are buckling to insurance companies and lobbyists invested in the status quo, and teaming up with Republicans to combat progressives. They're touting "bipartisanship" -- which in effect means eliminating or watering down components of the plan that will be vital to its overall performance. And leading Democrats in the House and Senate are taking the bait.

With Republicans in the wilderness at sub-filibuster levels, the biggest obstacle to health reform is Democrats' own inability to act strongly. The progressive caucus is showing some spine, but the rest of the Democrats are putting their political future at risk by wavering on the problems they ran for office to fix. It will be extremely difficult to sustain support in upcoming elections when, even with an iron grip on power, they were unable to advance their own platform. They have no excuse not to deliver.

Still, the battle is far from over and despite their missteps Democrats maintain the upper-hand. But they won't for long if they aren't proactive in spreading their message and combating misinformation. MoveOn.org and HCAN can't accomplish this on their own. Now that change is on the table, time is not on their side. The slower this bill moves the easier it'll be to stop it in its tracks.

Democrats can't afford to hit the playground during the upcoming August recess. These few weeks will be make-or-break. Democratic leaders need to pull their party together to hash out a real solution, and push it with conviction and gamesmanship. Now is the time to put it on the line, because their party will not recover from another failure of this magnitude.