Leverage

LEVERAGE…. Jonathan Cohn wrote a good lay-of-the-land piece last night on the state of the health care reform fight, noting, among other things, the “unambiguous.” “unyielding,” and “obstinate” efforts of center-right Democrats undermine the Senate bill.

But Cohn’s point about reform’s champions is the one I keep mulling over.

To be sure, Liberals can flex their muscle, too. Bernie Sanders made very clear, in his own statements over the weekend, that he wasn’t guaranteeing to give his vote — particularly if conservative Democrats (and former Democrats) extract even more concessions.

Sanders is right to play hardball like this, but, at the end of the day, it’s hard to imagine he’d cast the vote to kill health care reform. He simply cares too much about the people even a weakened bill would help. The same goes for Sherrod Brown, who’s emerging as a leading voice for progressives. Their interest in helping their fellow man is, in strategic terms, a great weakness.

I not only think this is right, I think it’s a dynamic that will inevitably shape the debate over the next month (or more). We’re dealing with a series of upcoming negotiations in which conservative Dems’ indifference gives them leverage. In other words, Lieberman, Nelson, & Co. don’t much care if this once-in-a-generation opportunity implodes, while reform advocates care very much. These rather obvious bargaining positions create a playing field that is anything but level.

Put it this way: imagine there’s a big meeting with every member of the Democratic caucus in both chambers. You stand at the front of the room and make a presentation: “If health care reform falls apart after having come this far, tens of millions of Americans will suffer; costs will continue to soar; the public will perceive Democrats as too weak and incompetent to act on their own agenda; the party will lose a lot of seats in the midterms and possible forfeit its majority; and President Obama will have suffered a devastating defeat that will severely limit his presidency going forward. No one will even try to fix the dysfunctional system again for decades, and the existing problems will only get worse.”

For progressive Democrats, the response would be, “That’s an unacceptable outcome, which we have to avoid.”

For conservative Democrats, the response would be, “We can live with failure.”

This necessarily affects negotiations. One contingent wants to avoid failure; the other contingent considers failure a satisfactory outcome. Both sides know what the other side is thinking.

Yes, progressive Democrats can force the issue, keep the bill intact, and force Nelson, Landrieu, Lieberman, and Lincoln to kill the legislation, in the process making clear exactly who was responsible for the debacle. But that’s cold comfort — the goal isn’t to position center-right Dems to take the blame for failure; the goal ostensibly is to pass a bill that will do a lot of good for a lot of people.

The push for more “compromise” isn’t going to be pretty.