Moderates like Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana may find defending a public option in health care reform costs them their seats.
It's Halloween week, so perhaps it's appropriate that the health care public option has risen from the dead. Neither silver bullet nor stake through the heart has managed to kill off this legislative monster.
As in so many horror movies, bringing this zombie back to life requires the sacrifice of a virgin. This time, the maiden is named Bipartisanship, and her death may cost President Obama and congressional Democrats at the midterms. They apparently figure getting a health care proposal through that satisfies their liberal base is more important than pleasing moderates.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's decision to back the public option -- even with a state "opt-out" provision -- is a high-risk strategy. He immediately lost the one Republican, Olympia Snowe, who backed Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus' bill. Snowe's support gave the legislation the fig leaf of bipartisanship. Another version, crafted in the Education and Labor Committee, had the public option -- as well as the support of powerful other senators -- notably New York's Chuck Schumer.
And so, Sen. Snowe was tossed off port side. But the risk for Reid is still huge. Democrats in red states -- most notably Mary Landrieu of Louisiana -- may decide they can't support the measure. Landrieu is up for re-election in 2010, and her state has been trending Republican with the elections of Gov. Bobby Jindal and Rep. Joseph Cao. If she decides a public option is too much to defend at home, she could bail out on her party. Reid and Schumer can try to convince Landrieu that the "opt-out" measure gives her enough cover, but ultimately, self-preservation is the most powerful motivator for most politicians. Blue Dog Democrats in the House may be in the same boat as Landrieu.
But the biggest lift in adopting the public option is for the president. "Change" for many of the middle-of-the-road voters who supported Barack Obama wasn't just about legislation. It was about a Washington attitude-adjustment from the fierce, fractured partisanship of the last two presidencies.
On Obama's most critical domestic policy item, it looks like he and fellow Democrats have cast aside bipartisanship. After a stimulus bill that only received three Republican votes, it appears that health care might not get any. If he succeeds, the president will have nearly three years to convince voters that this broken promise was worth the sacrifice. But some of his allies in Congress won't have the luxury of time.