Speaking Tuesday night at Busboys and Poets--homebase for lefties in Obama’s Washington--Howard Dean laid out his health reform game plan for liberal activists. “What we’re going to pass is a bill that includes a public option--the Democrats just don’t know it yet!” he boomed out to rousing cheers and applause. Well over a hundred people had packed into the restaurant for the event, where the only unwanted interruption was the piercing feedback from the PA system.

Having become the de facto spokesperson for the left, Dean urged his liberal supporters not to give up their singular focus on the public plan, even as the idea has receded from the center of the legislative negotiations. Blasting the (public option-less) Baucus bill as “the worst piece of health care legislation I’ve seen in 30 years,” Dean pronounced that “if there isn’t a public option, then there is no real reform. We’re completely wasting our money if we put $900 billion into the health insurance industry.” When asked how the Senate would get the votes to pass a bill with the public option, Dean immediately tallied up how the Democrats could get 51 votes, the number needed for reconciliation.When I asked him whether a bill without the public option would be better than no bill at all, Dean immediately replied: “yes.” Then he relented a bit, conceding that the reform bill held some other valuable provisions--although his definition of worthwhile is pretty narrow:

If I were Harry Reid and I didn’t have the votes, what I would do would be to strip the bill of all its money, and just do the insurance reform. It’s worth doing the guaranteed issue and community rating. We did it [in Vermont] 15 years ago -it really does work, and it does drive a lot of fly-by-nights out of the insurance industry. … I wouldn’t throw the whole thing out, because there are some valuable insurance reforms – the exchange is valuable, it’s a good way to buy insurance.

He may be right about Vermont's experience. But throwing out all of the money, including the Medicaid funding? That money would let millions of people get health insurance. Dean, as well as those who listen to him, might want to keep that mind.