POLITICS AUGUST 22, 2009
'We should not have a government plan that will pull the plug on grandma." That's not Rush Limbaugh or Sarah Palin talking. That's Charles Grassley, the supposedly respectable Republican senator from Iowa, speaking before a town hall in August. Grassley knows better, of course. As the ranking minority member of the Senate Finance Committee, he's been immersed in the issue for months. And there's nothing in the bills moving through Congress that would encourage, let alone force, people to end life-sustaining treatment for their loved ones or themselves.
Maybe Grassley was just responding to pressure from his party leadership, which has declared all-out war on the Democrats' plans for health care reform. Or maybe he's just channeling his own anxieties over what he and his colleagues on the committee have been debating during the last few months. Whatever. Grassley was supposed to be one of a handful of reasonable Republicans, the type that would sign on to reform only if it contained enough compromises from the left. But his statement about killing grandma--along with other comments he's made--is a pretty clear signal that Grassley wants no part of a Democratic health care bill. Bipartisan reform seems to be dead.
To which we say: Thank goodness. In the last few months, few political spectacles have been more unnerving than the sight of President Obama and his allies lowering their ambitions, bit by bit, in a painfully futile effort to win support from Republicans.The pattern was on perfect display this week. One of the biggest flash points in the reform debate concerns whether to create a public insurance plan--a government-run program, like Medicare, that would compete with private insurers for business. Liberals (including those at this magazine) love the idea, because they think a government plan will be more reliable, not to mention cheaper. Conservatives hate the idea, because they fear a government-run program will run private insurers out of business. As an effort to forge a consensus, some Democrats have suggested ditching the public plan and, instead, creating a set of consumer-run, nonprofit health care cooperatives. The hope was that these co-ops would be more acceptable to the GOP, since they wouldn't be government-run. But the hope turned out to be baseless. As the idea started to gain momentum, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl held a conference call to denounce the co-ops as government-run insurance by another name. He and his colleagues weren't budging.
None of this should be surprising. In the last two decades, Democrats have tried a variety of health care reforms--some big, some small. They proposed to insure everybody, and they proposed to insure just kids. They tried to restructure the entire insurance market, and they tried merely to regulate the most egregiously restrictive HMO practices. But Republicans attacked every single measure with the same charge: It's socialized medicine. This is not a party out to criticize and modify health care reform. This is a party out to kill health care reform. That's its prerogative, to be sure. But if that's the way Republicans are going to act, Democrats have no obligation to work with them.Bipartisanship is a lovely idea; when there's a possibility of real consensus between the parties, it's worth pursuing. But there's no such consensus today--not about how to make health care available to all and not even about whether making health care available to all is a worthwhile priority. Democrats have a choice: They can act on their own, or they can act not at all.