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Jim Cooper Gets The Treatment: A Blue Dog Barks Back

It would be something of an understatement to say that liberals don’t trust Representative Jim Cooper, the Democrat from Tennessee. That’s particularly true for liberals (like me) who remember the fight over health care reform in 1993 and 1994, when Cooper championed a centrist alternative to the Clinton health care plan. One former Clinton staffer has said “no Democrat did more to destroy our chances in that fight than Jim Cooper”--a verdict many experts share. More recently, Cooper lobbied then-President Elect Obama to convene a fiscal responsibility summit and then voted against the Democratic stimulus package in the House, although he would go on to vote in favor of a modified version.

A few weeks after that vote, I had a chance to interview Cooper at his Capitol Hill office. We didn’t talk about history. Instead, we talked about the present--and future--of two issues. One was the budget, which many of Cooper’s fellow centrists were attacking for its higher spending and tax levels. The other issue was health care, on which Cooper is once again seeking to play a major role.

Cooper remains a leading member of the Blue Dog coalition--which is to say, he remains very much the centrist, particularly on fiscal issues. Among other things, he thinks Americans as a whole--and, presumably, liberals in particular--pay insufficient attention to the generational inequities of Social Security. I didn’t agree with those stances before we met, and I don’t agree with them now.

But Cooper said some unexpected things, too. In what seemed (at least to me) like a shot at Obama’s centrist critics, he endorsed the president’s budget principles strongly, both for its honesty and its ambition. He dismissed concerns over short-term deficits, arguing that they were necessary to revive the economy, and threw around terms like “Rooseveltian,” suggesting it was essential Obama “think big” in his first year.

On health care, Cooper made a strong case for the bipartisan bill Senator Ron Wyden has been championing since late 2006 and that Cooper himself embraced, as an original House co-sponsor, last year. Since Wyden’s bill isn’t exactly popular on the left--it lacks a public plan option, among other things--this probably won’t win him too many friends among old critics.

But Cooper suggested that the Wyden measure is, in some respects, more liberal than what Obama himself had proposed on the campaign trail. And he happens to be right about that, since the Wyden bill would achieve full universal coverage right away. Cooper also made surprisingly favorable comments about generous benefit levels and the role of a public insurance plan.

A partial transcript of our interview is here. I say “partial” because I cleaned up some prose and took out a few things, particularly at the end where we got into the sort of detailed health policy discussion that would test the attention span of even devoted Treatment readers.

--Jonathan Cohn