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

The Long Overdue Debate

The United States was supposed to have had a great debate this year about one of the most important domestic policies of them all. With a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address a dysfunctional health care system, the left and right, Democrats and Republicans, would bring their A games, and the public would benefit from the discussion.

We now know, of course, that Americans were denied that debate, not because of the proposals, but because the right didn't have an A game to bring. Intellectual bankruptcy left conservatives with empty rhetorical quivers.

But as it turns out, it wasn't too late for the debate, we were just looking in the wrong place. We expected the fight of the generation to occur between the right and left, when the more relevant dispute was between the left and left.

It's easy to overlook right now, but the quality of the policy debate between competing progressive contingents is infinitely better and more interesting than the policy debate between Democrats and Republicans, which has unfolded in depressing ways over the last eight or nine months.

Consider, for example, two op-eds this morning -- Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) attacking health care reform from the right in the Wall Street Journal, and former Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.) going after reform from the left in the Washington Post. Both called for the defeat of the Senate Democratic plan, and both were written by leading figures on their respective side of the ideological fence, but only one had something sensible to offer.

Coburn's piece was absurd, wildly misleading, and included arguments that seemed oddly detached from the substantive reality of the debate. Dean's piece, whether one found it persuasive or not, was policy focused, serious, and credible. Dean's piece conveys the concerns of someone who cares deeply about health care and improving the dysfunctional system, while Coburn's piece reads like someone auditioning to be Sean Hannity's fill-in guest host.

Of course, it's not just two op-eds on a Thursday that bolster the point. Much has been made this week of the often-intense dispute between activists and wonks -- progressive reform advocates who think the Democratic plan has merit and is worth passing, and progressive reform advocates who think the Democratic plan is a failure and should be defeated. It's an important dispute, with significant implications.

But notice the quality of the debate. Note that Howard Dean, Markos Moulitsas, much of the FireDogLake team and others are raising important questions and pointing to real flaws. At the same time, note that Ezra Klein, Jonathan Cohn, Nate Silver and others are offering meaningful defenses of the Democratic plan, based on substantive evaluations.

Progressive activists and progressive wonks are at each other's throats this week, but they want largely the same goals. Their differences are sincere and significant, but the intensity of their dispute is matched by the potency of their arguments.

And then turn your attention to the other side of the divide, and notice the quality of the arguments conservatives and Republicans have offered -- and continue to offer -- in this debate. Death panels. Socialism. Hitler. Government takeover. Socialized medicine. Incomprehensible charts. Incessant whining about the number of pages in a proposal.

Time will tell whether reform will pass, whether the bill will be worthwhile, and whether the activists or the wonks win out. No matter what happens, the argument will continue beyond this one piece of legislation. But regardless what side of the dispute you're on, it's worth appreciating the vibrancy, energy, and seriousness with which progressives are engaging in the debate, as compared to the incoherent, ridiculous, and dull qualities our friends on the right have brought to the table.

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