Looking for leverage

LOOKING FOR LEVERAGE…. There’s been a widely held assumption that, when push comes to shove, liberal Democratic lawmakers want health care reform too much to balk — whether the bill is as strong as it should be or not. That assumption is being tested in new ways.

Atrios noted today the extent to which the left is willing to show some muscle on this.

I don’t know if the progressive House Dems will hold firm, but it’s certainly a more plausible story than “Max Baucus creates compromise bill that Republicans will vote for.” Yet it’s the latter story which gets all the attention. Dem pundits should understand that there’s pretty good chance that absent good public option, there will be no health care bill.

This came after Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) told CNBC that a health care bill lacking a public option could lose 100 of the 256 votes in the House Democratic caucus. Since House Republicans are likely to balk at any kind of reform, this would be more than enough to kill reform altogether.

Even if we take Republicans out of the equation, there’s the question of Democrats like Ben Nelson. The crude overview is that center-right Dems won’t support a plan with a public option, while progressive Dems won’t support a plan without one. For the past couple of months, all the talk has been about how center-right Dems will kill reform unless the bill is moved to the right. Weiner & Co., especially today, are saying that they’ll kill reform unless it starts moving back towards the left.

It’s easy to imagine a game of chicken unfolding on the Hill in September.

I still think there’s a leverage problem for the left. Reform advocates can call Ben Nelson & Co. and say, “Look, if you don’t support the reform package, with a public option, reform will die; it’ll be a generation before anyone tries again; the system will keep getting worse; it’ll crush Obama’s presidency; the progressive agenda will be devastated; and Republicans will probably win back Congress. Is the public option really that offensive?” It’s not unrealistic to think the answer to that question, for center-right Dems, is “yes.” They may not think that broader scenario sounds especially awful.

On the other hand, reform advocates can call progressives and say, “Look, if you don’t support the reform package, even one without a public option, reform will die; it’ll be a generation before anyone tries again; the system will keep getting worse; it’ll crush Obama’s presidency; the progressive agenda will be devastated; and Republicans will probably win back Congress. There’s all kinds of good stuff still in the bill. Support this now, and we’ll try to add on a public option in 2011.” Will liberals respond, “No, I’d rather it let it die”? Maybe, maybe not.

Or put another way, which side — center-right Dems or progressive Dems — is more invested in seeing reform pass this year, and which wouldn’t really care if the whole effort collapsed? The answer probably seems obvious, which is exactly why center-right Dems feel like they have the upper hand as the process continues. Too many conservatives would be satisfied with complete failure, and too many liberals are committed to making sure failure is not an option.