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Obama has lost his chance to pass real, meaningful health-care reform

When President Obama first took on health care, I actually sat down and wrote him a letter. As an American, I do stuff like that. I'm absolutely amazed that people looking like Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black didn't show up at my front door.

I urged him to look up Benjamin Disraeli's famous political flanking maneuver in hopes that he might get an idea or two before taking on Entrenched Big Money. I'm betting he now wishes he had taken my advice.

Disraeli was a conservative and in the political minority in England in the mid-to-late 1800s. There was a movement afoot to expand the franchise—that is, to let more people have the vote than just the traditional rich white folks.

Disraeli's arch-rival, William Gladstone, introduced a reform bill that would expand the voting franchise to include voting-class men who met certain property requirements. It was actually a rather modest proposal, but Gladstone's party botched it (that sounds familiar), and it not only went down to defeat; it cost Gladstone's party a parliamentary majority.

In swept Disraeli, and instead of celebrating the all-too-brief "success" of having defeated the measure, Disraeli looked long-term, for his party and his country. He drafted a measure that went far beyond Gladstone's proposal, one that included lodgers who paid a certain amount of rent. It also extended representation to people in various small villages and increased representation to larger cities like Manchester and Liverpool, which had previously been under-represented in Parliament. In all, the measure almost doubled the number of eligible voters in the country. It was popular, and many of the new voters sided with Disraeli's party.

To be sure, not everybody was happy with the bill. Far-right-wing members of Disraeli's party were livid. One in particular, Lord Cranborne quit Parliament and spoke out against Disraeli's move, calling it "a political betrayal which has no parallel in our Parliamentary annals." Cranborne's protests were largely swept away by the tide of history, while Disraeli and England prospered from the franchise expansion.

In my letter, I suggested that President Obama outflank his opposition, which basically had but one strategy available, that being to demonize Obama and whatever reform package he offered. That's exactly what they did with their "death-panel" talks.

The flanking maneuver would have required Obama to throw tort reform on the table with everything else. This has always been a third-rail issue for the Democrats, because their big-money backers, the trial lawyers, would hate like hell to see that gusher of easy cash slowed to a reasonable flow. It has also long been a rallying cry for Republicans, who believe that limiting the damages one could collect on medical malpractice would have a huge effect on corralling out-of-control health-care costs. (It probably could, and combined with some of the measures that the Dems put forth, it would have made for real, long-term health-care reform.)

In this toxic political atmosphere, probably the only successful and meaningful measure that could be passed would be one that includes something for everyone to hate.

The president had his chance. It would have been a bold and risky move, but if he had done it at the right time (and explained it to the American people), it might just have been crazy enough to work. The Democratic members of Congress, many of whom had been swept into office on Obama's coattails, would have been reluctant to oppose the measure, even with the lawyers putting up a squawk. And the Republicans, having had their biggest hot-button issue handed to them on a silver platter, would have been backed into a corner in permanent put-up-or-shut-up mode.

The Democrats, looking at the fall elections that are racing toward them with gathering dark clouds, almost certainly have to pass something now. Whatever it is will be, in words of Abraham Lincoln, "weaker than a soup made from the shadow of a pigeon that has starved to death."

Entrenched Big Money has won; of course, it could be argued that it would have won no matter which way the vote went. Health-care reform, meaningful or otherwise, is dead for another 20 years, by which time most people will find it easier, cheaper and less painful to just die rather than trying to pay the bills. The unholy alliance of lawyers, medicine, and insurance has stuck it to us, and the sad fact is that many people willingly participated in their own beat-down.

The amount that my wife pays to insure herself and my son is five times what she paid just 10 years ago (and back then, the policy also covered my daughter, who now has her own insurance). Even the knuckleheads who are celebrating the defeat of health-care reform should realize that people can't sustain that.

So, health-care-reform opponents: While you're dancing in the street, I hope you sprain your ankle, and that your insurance company absolutely punishes you. Which they will, because they now know that Congress certainly won't stop them.

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