Thought experiment of the day

THOUGHT EXPERIMENT OF THE DAY…. Putting aside the relative merits of the health care reform framework unveiled last week by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), he clearly went to great lengths to make it appealing to Republican lawmakers.

In the hopes of picking up at least some GOP support, the Finance Committee chairman presented a rather conservative plan that insurance companies loved — no public option, interstate competition, high-risk pools, verification of citizenship, no public funds for abortion, high-deductible policies, no deficit spending, and featuring an individual mandate and Medicare reductions many Republicans, including conservatives, had already endorsed. All with a modest price tag, too.

We now know, of course, that the GOP wouldn’t take “yes” for an answer, and rejected the Baucus pitch en masse. Over the last week, Baucus has made his framework more liberal, not less, to gain favor with committee Dems.

Jonathan Chait ponders a provocative point: what if Republicans had gotten on board with Baucus’ proposal last week?

They could have announced their support on the condition that the bill not be changed at any point in the process — or even insisted on nudging it even further rightward. Moderate Democrats, who are desperate for GOP cover, would have lunged at that deal. It would have acquired the sheen of bipartisanship and probably become an unstoppable force, even at the cost of infuriating liberals. Instead, President Obama is probably going to sign a more liberal health care reform plan.

Now, I understand the reasons for the GOP’s behavior. Republicans are acting in their individual and collective political self-interest. Individually, Republicans realize that their base is convinced that Obamacare equals socialism plus death panels, and thus any Republican who signs on would kiss away his political future and quite likely face a primary challenge. Collectively, the party has put all its chips on defeating health care reform, or, as a fallback, withholding support and rendering reform a “partisan” exercise that can be used against red state Democrats in 2010.

It’s a smart political strategy. But the health care plan that Obama signs is going to be around for a very long time. Republicans might one day come to wonder if picking up some seats in 2010 were worth forgoing a chance to help put their imprint on the U.S. health care system.

It’s speculation, obviously. What’s more, it’s far too late. But Chait’s analysis sounds about right to me — had Republicans embraced Baucus’ offer, Dems like Nelson, Landrieu, Lincoln, Lieberman, and Bayh probably would been more than happy to join them. It would have set up a huge fight with the House, where Blue Dogs would have immediately endorsed the Baucus/GOP plan.

And the media would have loved it. Broder would start chiseling a statue in Baucus’ honor, and his plan would quickly be called the “consensus, biparitsan” approach to reform.

I’m delighted Republicans balked, but it’s interesting to ponder what the White House and the Democratic leadership might have done if the GOP had latched onto the Baucus bill.