At long last, the preliminaries are over and we’re entering the final rounds of the health-care reform debate.

After making the mistake of staying on the sidelines for too long, President Obama stepped up to the plate on Wednesday, March 3, and took charge. Before a crowd of health professionals packed into the East Room of the White House, he laid forth his best attempt at a compromise solution – and dared Congress to act.

We’ve talked about it long enough, Obama said. While they disagree about what to do about it, both Republicans and Democrats agree that the current system is broken and must be fixed. So, he argued, it’s time to stop debating the issue and get something done. Legislation on health care in some form has already passed both the House and the Senate, so now it deserves a final vote.

It shouldn’t take 60 votes in the Senate, either, Obama noted. Health care, he insisted, “deserves the same kind of up or down vote that was cast on welfare reform, that was cast on the Children’s Health Insurance Program, that was used for COBRA health coverage for the unemployed and, by the way, for both Bush tax cuts – all of which had to pass Congress with nothing more than a simple majority.”

Finally! If President Obama had only given that speech six months ago, we’d already have health-care reform in the bank. But his speech does set the stage for final approval of health care before March 26, when Congress leaves town for a two-week Easter break. At which point the scene will shift dramatically from legislation to election-year politics.

Republicans, of course, have been playing politics with the issue from the beginning. In July 2009, South Carolina’s Jim DeMint let the cat out of the bag when he told conservative supporters: “If we’re able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.” Ever since then, the goal of Republicans has been not to push their own version of health care, but to use all available tools, including the filibuster, to kill anything Obama proposed.

That plan having apparently failed, Republicans have already switched tactics: predicting that passage of health-care reform legislation will mean political ruin for Democrats in November. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned Democrats this week: “If somehow this bill is passed, (in the next election) every Republican candidate will be campaigning to repeal it.”

To which, Democrats, borrowing a phrase from George W. Bush, should respond: “Bring it on!”

The idea that passage of major health-care reform legislation will prove to be a political liability for Democrats is one of the biggest canards ever uttered in American politics. Indeed, all evidence is that the exact opposite is true. It wasn’t so long ago that we did have an election focused, in great part, on universal health care. One candidate was for it. One candidate was against it. And the pro-reform candidate now sits in the Oval Office.

Nor has the desire of Americans for health-care protection for themselves and their families changed since. Americans still like health care. What they don’t like is the political bickering they’ve seen for the last 14 months. They like the product, in other words, they just don’t like the process. Whatever political unrest may exist today among voters will disappear once Democrats, with a strong health-care bill in hand, focus on selling the product and not on defending the process.

And there are many good features to Obama’s bill. It expands coverage to 30 million Americans. It allows young people to stay on their parents’ plan until the age of 26. It prevents insurance companies from denying coverage because of a pre-existing condition. No, it’s not the perfect bill. It should contain a public plan option. But it’s still a lot better than the status quo. The truth is: Democrats will pay a political price, no matter what they do. Politically, it’s far better to do something than to have done nothing.

If, in fact, the choice facing voters in November is between Democrats who delivered on health-care reform vs. Republicans who want to repeal it and turn things back to insurance companies, Democrats will have a great day. And Mitch McConnell and John Boehner will be out of a job.

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