Our Unprescient Primary System

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Yesterday a slice of the blogosphere was batting around the question of whether Hillary Clinton would have gotten a universal health care bill through congress or whether perhaps she would have folded after Scott Brown or some other setback, as advised by Mark Penn.

Of course we’ll never know. But I think the fact that we’re having this conversation at all is an illustration of how bad a job primary campaigns do of accomplishing what activists want them to do. Back during the primary, absolutely everyone I know regarded Clinton as the candidate more committed to health reform. Heck, one of the reasons I voted for Obama is that I thought she was the candidate more committed to health reform—I wanted someone who’d make energy and climate his top domestic priority.

But it turns out that whatever you say about Clinton, Obama was actually really really really really committed to getting a health care bill done. What’s more, the bill he was so committed to getting done was closer to Clinton’s proposal than to his own. So what was accomplished by all those Clinton-Obama debate exchanges? Not much. And it turns out that the main questions that have divided progressives—how important is a public option in the scheme of things and what are the merits of high-stakes brinksmanship as a legislative tactic—are things that weren’t talked about at all over the course of a very long nominating process.