Beware the Friendly Underminer

There is plenty of reason to believe that Representative Jim Cooper, a moderate “Blue Dog” congressman from Tennessee, is serious and well-meaning when it comes to health care reform.

The 55-year-old Democrat, now more than six years into his second stint in the House (he previously served from 1983 to 1995), has studied and written about the issue extensively, crafted numerous reform proposals over the years, and even taught a health care policy course at Vanderbilt University.

But he sure has a knack for undermining Democratic presidents when health care is actually on the agenda.

Cooper used a Sunday appearance on CBS’s Face the Nation to throw cold water on Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s assertion that she has enough votes in the House to pass a Democratic reform plan, arguing that “we are still in the earliest stages of drafting reform. We have a long way to go.”

“I think that the American people want to take a closer look at this legislation,” Cooper said. “They want to feel comfortable with it. And I think most members of the House and Senate want the same thing.”

This plea to slow the pace, of course, flies in the face of President Obama’s efforts to inject urgency into the Congressional process. For months, Obama’s stated goal has been for health care legislation to clear the House and the Senate before Congress’ August recess. And even though it’s recently become clear this won’t happen, the White House is still intent on resolving the issue as quickly after the recess as possible.

The reason for this urgency is obvious, and Cooper himself understands it—or at least he understood it back in early April, when he said of health care reform, “We need to get this done in the first few months of the Obama administration, while he has the maximum clout.”

But on Sunday, Cooper’s message was far different. About all he’d say is that some bill—perhaps an amended version of one of the bills that’s already been introduced, or perhaps entirely new legislation (he mentioned the bipartisan proposal drawn up by Senators Ron Wyden and Bob Bennett and the plan authored by former Senators Bob Dole and Tom Daschle)—could pass before the end of the year, and that he was hopeful that one would.

Whether he intends it to be or not, Cooper’s posture is immensely helpful to Republicans in Congress, who have one overriding priority in the current health care debate: stall. The basic idea is that the longer the issue lingers unresolved, the more that doubt about Obama’s push will take hold among the general public.

If his fellow Republicans can keep reform from passing before the August break, South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint forecasted last week, “senators and congressmen will come back in September afraid to vote against the American people.” Obama himself is well aware of the danger of giving enemies of reform too much time; in Washington, he said at his press conference last week, “the default position is inertia.”

In fairness, Cooper clearly doesn’t share the apparent view of most Republicans that a serious overhaul of the health care system isn’t really necessary. And he’s offered qualified endorsements of some key aspects of the Democrats’ plan—including the watered-down public option proposed by Chuck Schumer (and opposed by many of Cooper’s fellow Blue Dogs). Still, the main beneficiaries of his let’s-not-rush-here rhetoric are Republicans.

Cooper’s done this before. Fifteen years ago, when Bill Clinton (who, like Obama last year, Cooper endorsed in the early stages of the Democratic primary campaign), he joined with Republican Congressman Fred Grandy to draw up a health care plan to rival the one introduced by Clinton (and crafted by his wife, Hillary). Unlike Clinton, Cooper didn’t insist on universal coverage in his “managed competition” plan, nor did he include the price constraints built into Clinton’s plan.

His intentions may have been genuine back then, too, but the effect was predictable: Do-nothing Republicans and reform-resistant business groups rallied around the Cooper plan, as did Cooper’s fellow moderate-to-conservative Democrats, killing momentum for Clinton’s efforts.

With his own plan languishing in Congress, Clinton took on the Cooper plan in his 1994 State of the Union address, taking out a pen and threatening to veto any health care bill that didn’t include guaranteed universal coverage. The threat did nothing to alter the debate. Inertia had taken hold and by the summer of ’94, Clinton gave up on health care.

Many in the Clinton White House suspected that Cooper’s push was motivated by simple politics. He was running for the Senate in an increasingly conservative Tennessee in 1994, so picking a high-profile fight with an increasingly unpopular Democratic president seemed a logical path to victory. If that was his plan, it failed spectacularly; anti-Clinton sentiment was so strong in ’94 (especially in the South) that Cooper’s Democratic label was the only thing most voters took note of, and he was trounced by Republican Fred Thompson, 61 to 39 percent.

Cooper made a political comeback in 2002, winning election in a different, slightly more liberal, House district. His days of statewide (and maybe even national) ambition are gone now, so you can’t really ascribe a similar motive to his current health care posture. His motives seem pure, or at least as pure as you’ll find in Washington. Still, that doesn’t mean that, when it comes to passing meaningful reform, he’s doing the right thing.