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Revising The Target

The piece I posted last Friday has unleashed a torrent of criticism. Alas, some of it is based on a misunderstanding of what I said, and much of it reflects an unwillingness to face political reality.

I did not--repeat, did not--propose "abandoning health reform." Here's what I said:

[T]he president would be well advised to focus more on the economy over the next three years, and to persuade average Americans that the economy is as central to his concerns as is it to theirs. That means taking what he can get on health care and climate change and clearing the decks well before the end of the year.

"Taking what he can get" is very different from abandoning the effort. It means, rather, coolly evaluating what portion of his preferred outcome the Congress will be willing to accept and steering toward that revised target.

There are signs that the administration is beginning to shift in that direction. On Sunday, for example, HHS Secretary Sebelius made it clear on CNN's "State of the Union" that the administration would be willing to accept a bill without the now-famous "public option," a step that may help clear the path to compromise. Other steps may be necessary as well. Among them: The administration may have to accept less than fully universal coverage, as well as a lower ceiling on premium subsidies than House Democrats have proposed. (Requiring states to accept a larger Medicaid burden seems dicey as well, on both policy and political grounds.)

Here are some propositions that must frame the administration's strategy over the next four months:

(1) Reconciliation is not a feasible course of action for enacting comprehensive health reform, because key features of such legislation would not comply with parliamentary rules and would not survive challenges from the floor. Compromise is essential if anything is to pass.

(2) The alternative to a compromise health bill in 2009 is not a better bill in 2010 or 2011; it is no bill at all, for the foreseeable future.

(3) There aren't 51 votes in the Senate for cap-and-trade, let alone 60. (A number of senior environmentalists privately share this judgment.) A free-standing energy bill focusing on conservation and energy alternatives--the course a number of Senate Democrats have recommended--may be the most the administration can get.

(4) As we should have learned 15 years ago, allowing the best to become the enemy of the feasible and coming up empty-handed would be a policy catastrophe for the country and a political catastrophe for the Democratic Party.

Democrats are careening toward a moment of truth. Decisions made over the next few months will determine whether we have learned enough from our years in the wilderness to act as a serious governing majority. If not, our arithmetic majority will prove fleeting.