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More Reasons Why Bredesen Is A Bad, Bad Idea

Marc Ambinder is reporting that Phil Bredesen is a serious candidate to become Secretary of Health and Human Services. Various stories around town have him being vetted or emerging as one of two finalists, although my sources for that are all second-hand, so make of that information what you will.

As I wrote yesterday, Bredesen seems like a particularly poor candidate for the job. He presided over massive cuts to Tennessee's Medicaid program and, by all appearances, relished fighting with advocates for the poor more than the advocates of the cuts. He made his fortune in the for-profit health insurance industry, raising questions about the sensibility he'd bring--to say nothing of the political message he'd sent.

But you don't have to take my word for it. (Or Ezra Klein's--see below.) Just listen to Ron Pollack, the president of the liberal health care advocacy group FamiliesUSA. He spoke to me a little while ago. Keep in mind that Pollack is a real player in the health debate--somebody whom policy-makers take seriously in part because he's not given to ranting and raving:

Phil Bredesen presided over the largest state cutback of public health programs in the history of our nation, so how can one not be worried about him? I worry that the relationship he would have to the Obama team would harm the credibility of what the president is trying to do. And I think it would create a firestorm among the strongest supporters of health care reform.

That last part is really important. Back durng he 1993-1994 fight over health care reform, liberals never rallied around the Clinton plan. And that lack of support was a key reason Clinton and his allies crumbled once conservatives, working hand in hand with their kindred interest groups, started to attack. 

One of the primary reasons for optimism Obama might succeed where Clinton failed is that the left seems engaged and enthusiastic this time around. Groups like the Service Employees International Union are pouring money and bodies into a grassroots push for health care; liberals, generally, are unified behind the sort of plan Obama is likely to push, even if they don't consider it ideal. Putting Bredesen at HHS would threaten that progress and, in the process, threaten the prospects of enacting health reform.

What makes this all particularly worrisome is that there are plenty of alternatives--not just viable altenratives, but good alternatives. Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius tops this list. Based on her record, she has both the right experience and the right instincts. She's taken herself out of the running for other offices, but don't be so sure she'd turn this one down, given its key role in passing, and then implementing, what might be the signature domestic policy measure of this administration and perhaps this generation.

Sebelius, by the way, is among those Pollack would recommend for the job. Others on his list include Pennsylvania Govenor Ed Rendell, Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, and Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow. 

Pollack also went out of his way to suggest another name: Atul Gawande. You probably know Gawande as a physician and writer, thanks to his many graceful essays in the New Yorker. People forget, however, that Gawande has a background in health policy, too. After medical school, Gawande did a stint in the office of Tennessee Congressman Jim Cooper--until he was plucked by the Clinton campaign to advise them on health policy. I'm not sure Gawande has the experience to take over an agency as vast and diverse as HHS. (He would have made a great surgeon general!) But, for what it's worth, his thoughts on health reform are extremely sensible. 

P.S. Time's Karen Tumulty has more on the search for Tom Daschle's successor here. 

Update: OK, if this doesn't kill the Bredesen nomination, nothing will. From Ezra: "In 2005, Andrea Conte, Bredesen's wife, embarked on a renovation of the governor's mansion. The total project would cost $9.4 million, and Conte quickly set about raising the required funds. The largest donor? BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee."

--Jonathan Cohn