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Bipartisanship and What Might Have Been

David Brooks has been saying sensible things about health care for a while now. He has expressed what seems like a sincere interest in reforming the health care system. He has also demonstrate a substantive grasp of the issues that goes beyond what most observers seem to have, the kind you can get only if you take the issue seriously.

To be sure, we don't exactly see things the same way. He seems far less interested in expanding coverage for its own sake than I do. He's also far more distrusting of government intervention.  But, as Brooks writes today in his New York Times column, that divide shouldn't prevent conservatives and liberals from working together--since there are, after all, ways to address both problems simultaneously, if not always to either side's satisfaction.

Although Brooks has said these things before, the timing is important. In the last few weeks and particularly in the last few days, a number of prominent conservative and Republican voices have spoken out on the importance of health care reform, even if that means working with the Democrats on the bills moving through Congress: Michael Bloomberg, Bob Dole, Bill Frist, Mark McClellan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tommy Thompson. None offered unambiguous endorsements of Democratic reforms and, in Frist's case, the statement of support was all but withdrawn a day later. Still, the signal coming from these people is unmistakable: It's time for the Republicans to do something more than obstruct.

To be sure, most of these people have more cache in the center than on the right. And none of them have a vote in Congress. But their words have influence. When some of the Republican Party's best known figures say health reform has at least some redeeming value, it's harder for the party's congressional leaders to claim it's all some crazy, radical plot.

And you never know: It's always possible one or two Republicans with votes might pay attention. As Brooks notes today, it's becoming increasingly clear that the Democrats have the votes to pass something at least as ambitious as the Baucus measure.

If I were in Congress, I’d figure there’s an 80 percent chance of something like this passing anyway. I might as well get engaged as a provisional supporter to fight to make it better, or at least to fight off the coming onslaught to make it worse.

Of course, insofar as Brooks' idea of "worse" is my idea of "better," maybe it's just as well the entire GOP delegation stay on the sidelines. But that's the great irony here, as Ezra Klein--in about the tenth blog item I've meant to quote this week*--astutely notes today:

Because Democrats had no Republican cover, they could not sacrifice a single member of their party. That's meant that they couldn't be courageous on taxes, and they couldn't tell the unions to stuff it when they demanded that the exchanges remain constricted. Republicans complain that the bill is too liberal (though the Senate Finance Committee's bill is actually not very liberal at all), but that's in part because no Republicans were willing to offer their votes in return for making it more conservative.

*Which reminds me, sorry for the light posting of late, while I've been preoccupied with some reporting. I'll be back to my normal pace next week.