THE KIND OF DEBATE THAT’S LONG OVERDUE…. Maybe this is an esoteric point, but it occurs to me that the quality of the policy debate between competing progressive contingents is infinitely better and more interesting than the policy debate between Democrats and Republicans we witnessed over the last eight or nine months. It’s probably an inconsequential observation, but I think it nevertheless speaks to a larger truth.

The thought came to me after reading two op-eds this morning — Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) attacking health care reform from the right in the Wall Street Journal, and former Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.) going after reform from the left in the Washington Post. Both called for the defeat of the Senate Democratic plan, and both were written by leading figures on their respective side of the ideological fence, but only one had something sensible to offer.

Coburn’s piece was absurd, wildly misleading, and included arguments that seemed oddly detached from the substantive reality of the debate. Dean’s piece, which I personally disagree with, was nevertheless policy focused, serious, and credible. Dean’s piece conveys the concerns of someone who cares deeply about health care and improving the dysfunctional system, while Coburn’s piece reads like someone auditioning to be Sean Hannity’s fill-in guest host.

Of course, it’s not just two op-eds on a Thursday that bolster the point. Much has been made this week of the often-intense dispute between activists and wonks — progressive reform advocates who think the Democratic plan has merit and is worth passing, and progressive reform advocates who think the Democratic plan is a failure and should be defeated. It’s an important dispute, with significant implications.

But notice the quality of the debate. Note that Howard Dean, Markos Moulitsas, much of the FireDogLake team and others are raising important questions and pointing to real flaws. At the same time, note that Ezra Klein, Jonathan Cohn, Nate Silver and others are offering meaningful defenses of the Democratic plan, based on substantive evaluations.

Progressive activists and progressive wonks are at each other’s throats this week, but they want largely the same goals. Their differences are sincere and significant, but the intensity of their dispute is matched by the potency of their arguments.

And then turn your attention to the other side of the divide, and notice the quality of the arguments conservatives and Republicans have offered — and continue to offer — in this debate. Death panels. Socialism. Hitler. Government takeover. Socialized medicine. Incomprehensible charts. Incessant whining about the number of pages in a proposal.

The United States could have had a great debate this year about one of the most important domestic policies of them all. But Americans were denied that debate, because the right didn’t have an A game to bring. Intellectual bankruptcy left conservatives with empty rhetorical quivers.

But as it turns out, it’s not too late for the debate, we were just looking in the wrong place. We expected the fight of the generation to occur between the right and left, when the more relevant and interesting dispute was between left and left.

Time will tell who’ll win, and no matter what happens, the argument will continue beyond this one piece of legislation. But regardless what side of the dispute you’re on, it’s worth appreciating the vibrancy, energy, and seriousness with which progressives are engaging in the debate, as compared to the incoherent, ridiculous, and dull qualities our friends on the right have brought to the table.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.