WASHINGTON -- It's time to cast aside the political shorthand and ideological pigeonholing that distort our debates over health care in particular and government's role in American life more broadly.
The way words such as "centrist" and "bipartisan" are now deployed turns the discussion away from useful arguments over how various proposals might work and toward arid talk about how ideas fit into prefabricated boxes.
The impact of this warping of reality, brought home daily in the health care fight, was dramatized in last week's debate in the House of Representatives over a bill to expand federal aid to students by eliminating subsidies to bankers.
The bill, which passed 253-171, would allocate about $80 billion over the next decade for new loans, community colleges, school construction and early childhood programs without increasing taxes or adding to the deficit. How? Instead of paying bankers to provide loans for which they bear no real risk, the government would make the loans directly.
Liberals are always accused of spending money without worrying where it comes from, but in this case, costs are covered by making a government program more efficient -- yes, at the expense of bankers.
"We were paying these exorbitant subsidies to bankers who were taking government money, loaning it to somebody else, getting government guarantees that the loans would be paid back, and then taking all these profits," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the bill's champion. This, he told me, led Congress to ask itself: "Hey, chump, what is it you don't get about what's going on here?"
The only knock on the proposal is ideological: that government is "taking over" the student loan program. But it's already a government program. The bill simply eliminates corporate welfare.
This is a classic case of how the Great Ideological Distortion Machine does its mischief: Instead of focusing on how the bill advances values typically regarded as "centrist" -- government efficiency, pay-as-you-go budgeting -- the banks' defenders bury the specifics behind abstract discussions of "big government." Yet I'd venture that middle-of-the-road Americans prefer that their tax money go toward education rather than to padding the profits of financial firms.
The same distortions have affected the health care debate. Opponents of a public insurance option don't want to talk about what it actually is--one alternative that would expand choice in the insurance marketplace. Instead, they pretend that it would amount to (that phrase again) a "government takeover" of health care.
But that would be true only if individuals themselves freely chose the public plan in overwhelming numbers, and the public plan has already been so hemmed in that its share of the market will be limited.
Or take a look at the efforts of Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., to make his health plan "centrist" by holding down costs. One way he does this is by cutting subsidies to middle-class Americans without insurance. Because the Baucus bill mandates that everyone buy a policy, many families in the $60,000 to $85,000 income range who now lack coverage could end up paying almost a fifth of their incomes on health care costs. What, pray, is "centrist" about hitting part of the middle class so hard?
This provision will almost certainly be changed at the insistence of not only Democrats such as Sens. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Ron Wyden of Oregon, but also one of the last authentically centrist Republicans, Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine.
That Snowe may be the single Republican who could vote for health care reform tells us a lot about the state of bipartisanship. In the days when there were a lot of moderate and even liberal Republicans, bipartisanship typically involved Democrats proposing that government undertake various worthy projects while moderate Republicans demanded efficient and market-oriented means to achieving those ends.
But all of the health bills on offer, even the supposedly "liberal" House bill, are already centrist compromises built on a private health insurance market and entailing less government spending than many liberals think is necessary. Why is Snowe almost alone in her party in acknowledging this?
It's fine with me if conservatives want to fight reforms in healthcare or student loans on the merits. But, please, let's disenthrall ourselves from phony definitions of centrism and bipartisanship. As Miller might put it, only chumps allow labels to blind them to what's really going
E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.
(c) 2009, Washington Post Writers Group