09/21/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

McAuliffe Comes Out Swinging: Without Public Option, Health Care A "Failure"

Former Democratic National Committee Chair Terry McAuliffe is demanding his party take a stand on health care legislation that the president and many others aren't willing to take: Pass a bill with a public option for insurance coverage or don't pass anything at all.

The long-time adviser to the Clintons, striking an atypically progressive tone, urged the White House to get more assertive in its handling of health care reform and described a bill without a public plan as a "failure."

"If we don't have the public option, we are wasting our time," McAuliffe told the Huffington Post. "To chalk something up and get something that is not the right thing to do is morally wrong... To pass something just so you can go home and go into election saying we passed something is not why lawmakers are sent to Washington."

After a bit of silence following his loss in the Virginia Democratic gubernatorial primary, the former DNC chair has come out swinging on the year's most important legislative issue. On Thursday, McAuliffe agreed to host a fundraiser with the first Virginia pol who insisted that a public option be in the bill. The offer, he said, extends to Sens. Jim Webb and Mark Warner -- both of whom have been sour on the idea of a government-administered option for insurance coverage. He's also involved in whipping support in Congress for the public option.

In adopting this position, McAuliffe finds himself in unusual company. The figures who have publicly gone to bat for the public option to date -- most notably another former DNC Chair, Howard Dean -- are predominantly from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. It is the same group that has viewed McAuliffe skeptically in the past for his pro-business demeanor and "third way" political ethos.

"Howard [Dean] and I have had the benefit of literally traveling to every city and county in America and hearing the horror stories that American families go through because of the inefficiencies of the health care system and the profiteering of insurance companies that is going on," McAuliffe explained of his new alliances. "It breaks your heart."

Indeed McAuliffe's insistence on a public option is driven by his experiences both in politics and business. He argues that it is an economic imperative to help alleviate the health care costs that are burdening companies and families. And he derides Republicans for using the same playbook they did during the Clinton years -- drawing the debate into sideshow topics like death panels and tax hikes.

"I think for a lot of [Republicans], they could care less," McAuliffe said, when asked if the White House was wasting its time trying to recruit bipartisan support. "They aren't interested in reforming health care. Their interest is bringing the Obama administration down. That is clear. Many of them have publicly said that."

But the onus of health care reform is on Democrats. McAuliffe knows that without defections, the party could pass a robust public plan in both chambers of Congress. And while he stressed repeatedly that the issue should be non-partisan, he also insisted that lawmakers would be abandoning their responsibilities by trying to tackle health care in a piecemeal way.

"Right now, [Democrats] have the House, the Senate, and the White House," McAuliffe said. "I'm not a believer that we should get something done, chalk it up as a victory, and move on. That is, to me, the worst argument. If we are going to do it, do it right. And if we don't do it right now it is never going to happen. ... The president of the United States ran on this issue. It is the moral thing to do. So let's do this."

"A bill without a public option is not necessary and it is ultimately counterproductive," he added. "If we do it incrementally and don't cover those 46 million people we are trying to put a Band-Aid on a gigantic sore that is out there festering....

"I think what the White House ought to do is stand up," McAuliffe said. "Put everybody on the record. Where do you stand? Do you want to cover these 46 million Americans or not? I think we ought to have a head count. Let the American public know where people stand on this issue. Because without the public option forget all the rest... To get in and fight for a win that doesn't accomplish and care for the people who most need it in this country to me is not a win. It is a failure. You can sugarcoat it. You can put any icing on it that you want. To me it is failure."

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