Dean Challenges Obama on Public Option

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 20, 2009

POLAND SPRING, Maine -- Former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean is emerging as a thorn in the side of a White House that effectively swept him out of Washington, regularly challenging President Obama and Congress as he crisscrosses the country preaching his progressive vision for universal health care.

Although he is lending voice and brand to the liberal cause in the intraparty health-care debate, Dean hardly considers himself a spoiler. Rather, he sees his role as fighting for progressive values, asserting again and again that health-care reform without a government-run insurance option is hardly reform at all.

When he visited this tranquil corner of New England last weekend, Dean warned that if Democratic leaders abandon the "public option," they surrender their principles to politics.

"The worst thing that could happen is to pass a bill without a public option," he told about 200 union workers and Democratic volunteers in a fiery speech at a pep rally and picnic here Sunday. "Then we'd put 60 billion new dollars a year into the health insurance industry that is busy taking away your health insurance when you need it most, stopping you from getting health insurance, taking it away if you lose a job and not giving it back to you if you get it back."

"We all voted for change we can believe in. If we don't get it, we'll get some more change in 2010," Dean roared, the crowd applauding between bites of hamburgers, hot dogs and macaroni salad.

'We've Got to Get It Done'

In a wide-ranging interview Sunday on his way to the rally, Dean said he believes his appearances, many of which are organized by the Service Employees International Union, help support Obama's stated preference for a publicly financed insurance option.

"I think Obama's plan is very good," said Dean, a former physician who has made health care a key focus of his political career. "In fact, I think it's the most practical, most likely-to-succeed plan I've seen in 30 years, and we've got to get it done. This is the time."

"Any bill is not going to be a victory," Dean added, noting that he considers one without a public option a "terrible waste of money. . . . The fiscal conservative side of me is saying, 'Oh my God, what are we doing here?' "

But in his appearances, which are not coordinated with the administration, Dean is helping to fuel what could become a calamity for the White House.

"What Howard is doing is principled but destructive," said a Democratic strategist and former Dean adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the intraparty debate. "If health-care reform goes down because of the public option, it's going to be the liberals that bring it down, the Democrats doing it to themselves."

Dean, 60, has become a politician without an office. Seven months removed from the DNC chairmanship and seven years away from being governor of Vermont, he appears to enjoy the freedom to speak his piece. And on this day, he did not appear concerned about the potential consequences for Obama.

"This vote is not about Democrats versus Republicans and conservatives and liberals and all that stuff," Dean said, his voice growing louder and his cadence faster. "This is about whether you're going to vote for the people who donated to your campaigns -- the health insurance industry -- or you're going to vote for the people who pay your salary. And we're going to be watching, because there are going to be 535 people casting that vote."

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