So Howard Dean has joined the ranks of liberals piling on health reform and encouraging lawmakers to toss in the towel. (See Kos and Firedoglake for more reform-flogging from the left.)

Health reform does not succeed or fail by the public option, despite what Dean and others seem to suggest. This is not to say that the public option wasn’t important—at least as it was originally imagined (see Michael’s post here.) But we and others like Jonathan Cohn have pointed out the success of reform ultimately depends on strong subsidies, insurance reform and improvements in care delivery—things that are still in the bill.

Perhaps it’s because they hitched their wagons so closely to the Obama’s Technicolor campaign and the ’08 election that Dean, Kos and Co. feel such betrayal in the real-world policy give and take happening in the final stretch of health care reform.  And I’ll admit, it’s easy to see how eight years under the Bush administration could lead one to believe that everything is a black-white issue.

But that kind of thinking—a rugby-like mentality in which health reform is a game with a scoreboard—fails both the spirit of reform and the work that’s been done.  By dismissing health reform with such invective, Dean, Kos and the choir of liberals singing their tune haven fallen to the very same faulty syllogistic thinking they shun the “teabaggers” for: Giving any ground is akin to surrender and defeat, and the yield of such defeat must therefore be waste.

But it’s not.  It’s important to see how far health reform has come, within a year of an administration for whom reform was nearly always a dirty word. If, under the Bush Administration, we could have gotten any one of the things that are in the reform packages now – federal matching funds for all low-income people, say, or a ban on pre-existing conditions exclusions – the champagne would have flowed on the Left bank.  But now, the public option is out and folks are headed for the hills.

Far from the “so-called reform” Kos rolls his eyes at, the improvements this bill will make are real: Expanded coverage to hundreds of thousands of people who now go uninsured, critical insurance reforms that will protect American families from losing coverage and medical debt, subsidies to help people buy coverage who can’t afford to now, and innovations in the way the systems delivers and assesses care. Yes, it’s flawed. It doesn’t give low-wage workers help and health security fast enough, for instance. But it gets people help, and binning the whole thing and starting over leaves those people stranded.

Health care reform may have been a presidential campaign promise of Obama’s, but it wasn’t by bashing insurers that the candidates won support for health reform – it was because they were offering to help people who desperately need it.  Health care, despite what some of the news networks insist, is not a Democratic or Republican issue. It’s about helping people. It is about starting to mend a really broken system, and beginning to re-imagine how a country takes care of it’s sick and frail. To try things out and see what works. And it’s sure not a panacea. But when was it ever going to be?

All victories are partial. The Voting Rights Act was a victory by any standard, but it didn’t stop racial discrimination in the U.S. – it made way for a succession of other, smaller victories that helped turn back systemic racism. Passing Medicare was a victory – but not all at once. Coverage for the disabled, and the drug benefit, came later, and this bill continues those efforts to make the program work better. Despite the suggestions of these critics, it’s near impossible to get a project as complex and all-encompassing as reform right on the first try. But we need to make a first try, and the Congress recognizes that.

The flaws and compromises in the health reform proposals are not reason to dismiss them but to instead commit to the process of reform and the act of helping people. We should enact the best bill possible, then start working to make it better. Those bent on merely measuring the gap between Perfect Health Reform and what the Congress is working on now are selling their country short.

–Kate Petersen, Health Policy Hub