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Top Dem Strategists Urge Pullback on Health Plan

Top Dem Strategists Urge Pullback on Health Plan

By David Paul Kuhn - January 22, 2010

In a painful conclusion for many progressives, top Democratic strategists said in interviews Thursday evening that their party must now give up on comprehensive health care reform and press for a limited bill that can be quickly passed.

"I don't think that the comprehensive health care reform that passed the House and Senate can be signed into law this year," said Tad Devine, who has advised congressional and presidential campaigns. "The sooner we recognize the reality that a super majority was necessary to achieve this, the sooner we'll be able to win back voters."

"We can all dream but the reality is that they couldn't do it when we had 60 votes and we are not going to do it with 59," said Joe Trippi, a strategist long aligned with Democrat's liberal wing. "It's not what I want. I'd love to wave a wand and get comprehensive reform. But I think that they didn't go for that, when they could have."

The consultants have to by trade reconcile themselves with what agenda can win elections nationwide. That realpolitik has brought them to a place they could have hardly imagined one year ago when Barack Obama was inaugurated.

Until this week, as Devine put it, "the White House felt they would sustain the political damage in the short term because [health care reform] would be such a remarkable achievement in the long term."

But now many Democrats believe the scale has changed. The health plan's near-term political cost outweighs the party’s long-term policy goals. To Devine and others: less is now possible, too many other causes are being pushed aside and the party's future is now also at stake.

"We have not seen enough progress to justify the sweeping power voters gave to our party in the last two elections and they are demanding it, that the progress occur, and occur now!" Devine said. "And if we act on that, I think they will give us a lot of leeway. And if we don't deal with it we will lose important House and Senate seats, and ultimately I think it's a threat to the president's reelection."

Strategists' stark shift comes as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters Thursday that her caucus would not be able to unite around the more moderate Senate bill.

"In its present form, without change, I don't think it's possible to pass the Senate bill in the House," she said.

Republican Scott Brown's stunning Jan. 19 senate victory leaves Democrats with 59 Senate votes. If Pelosi is right, any new bill will require at least one GOP Senate vote.

The current legislation is seen as so politically fraught that Democrats are unlikely to use parliamentary tactics, like reconciliation, to maneuver the broad bill around Republicans. Democrats might apply reconciliation to more modest measures. It's an open question. For now, Democrats are struggling with the current Senate bill that is as controversial as it is stalled.

"They've spent a year working on health care. People who have jobs, if they spent a year working on a project and didn't finish, most of them would be fired," said Steve Rosenthal, a leading Democratic field organizer and former political director of the AFL-CIO. "I firmly believe they should do everything they can to get comprehensive, big health care reform, but if that can't be done, then they have to do what they can, drop back 10 and punt."

Devine, following private meetings with House Democratic lawmakers, said health care reform has come to that fourth down and Democrats should not go for it.

Devine said Democrats must go "a different route" to pass a more modest measure that confronts "insurance coverage issues" like protecting Americans with pre-existing medical conditions.

"They should get everything they can get," in Trippi's words. Then, many said, move solely to the economy.

It's a political nightmare for Democrats, replete with the ghosts of majorities past. Democrats flirted briefly with periods of majority rule under Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Both periods achieved little and cost Democrats' power. The yearlong push for health care reform caps a half century of effort. It has vacuumed President Obama's political capital. He is further than any president before him. But he might not have the means to get over that last mountain. Not with this politically loaded bill. Not looking over this new legislative landscape. Or so these strategists generally believe.

And the president might agree that the new terrain is impassable. Obama has already hinted at more limited legislation.

"I would advise that we try to move quickly to coalesce around those elements in the package that people agree on," Obama told ABC News Wednesday.

Some Democratic operatives hold out hope that once the reality of total legislative collapse sets in, progressives will accept more moderate reform. But an eleventh hour deal appears increasingly unlikely. As Politico reported Thursday night: "For the first time in the yearlong push, Democratic aides -- and even some members -- finally acknowledged privately that the fear of failure was real."

Pelosi insisted Thursday to reporters that a bill will still be passed but "we are not in a big rush." Democratic strategists believe precisely the opposite. Rosenthal said Democrats must move with haste to jobs bills. "The pieces have to add up to something big," he said. But the health care debate has become a roadblock.

"If I were the president, I'd invite Republicans to the White House, lock the door, throw away the key and insist that they take some of what you want and you take some of what they want," said Doug Schoen, a moderate Democratic strategist. Schoen helped Bill Clinton recover following a difficult early presidency.

Schoen believes that absent significant change Massachusetts could forewarn an election "tsunami." In his words, "If you are a Democrat there are only two ways to survive, change policies or run for the hills."

Swing state Democratic senators are already speaking out. Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, even before the polls closed in the Massachusetts race, told ABC News that if Democrat's continue on the same course it could be a political "catastrophe."

"The only we are able to govern successfully in this country is by liberals and progressives making common cause with independents and moderates," Bayh said.

When the polls closed, Virginia Sen. Jim Webb warned his party's leaders not to try to pass health care reform without first seating Brown. Soon, tellingly, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill seconded Webb. The Democratic leadership quickly agreed.

"All those people are realists," Devine said of Bayh, Webb and McCaskill. "They won elections in places where Democrats typically lose and as a result they ... make sure that the party is not so out of the mainstream.

"They have a real good reason to be deeply concerned and I'm not surprised they are speaking out. They need to put the marker down," Devine said of the moderate Democratic senators.

"One of the things that have been most missing in the Democratic Party is the moderate caucus has been MIA," Schoen said.

Devine now believes the lost super majority could insulate Democrats from the party's activist left flank. "The president is liberated by the fact that in order to accomplish things he'll have to do with the support of some of the Republican party, and I don't think that is a bad thing," Devine said.

But not all strategists agree. Celinda Lake is a veteran pollster who recently advised the defeated Massachusetts's Democratic senate candidate. After being told of her colleagues' view on the health plan, she sighed.

"Voters think we are not going in any direction and that's why they are mad," she said. "They are going to keep voting for change until someone delivers for them. We must move forward and deliver. We are mired in the muddy fields of France and we better march into Germany."

But many of Lake's peers now believe that the entire war cannot be won this year. Smaller victories, in their view, have become the only realistic ambition.

"We have no choice. If Democrats want to survive they have to distance themselves from increasingly unpopular policies," Schoen said. "Democrats could be squandering it all if they don't get in touch with the American people."

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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