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Tom Harkin and the Alternate History of Health Care Reform

On the way out, the Iowa Democrat wonders why the party didn't go bigger.
Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, listens during a news conference in Washington, D.C. U.S., on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012.

Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, listens during a news conference in Washington, D.C. U.S., on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

It's been a week since Alex Bolton's interview with departing Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, but only today did some lefty economists start passing around this exchange on health care. Harkin, subjected to the twin indignities of defending the ACA against a new court challenge and warming up his Senate seat for a Republican, insisted that Democrats botched the job by failing to pass a more progressive bill.

This is extremely edifying for progressives, who can play all sorts of fantasy versions of the Obama years in their heads. (What if he'd jailed the bankers? What if he'd done cap-and-trade before Obamacare? And so on.) It's also, with apologies to Harkin, a ludicrous theory that no one agrees with. Former Senate staffers, who were not keen to trash a very respected colleague on the record, cannot recall any time when a single-payer health care plan, or a public option, could command 60 votes.