President Bush cracked open the door on the nation's health insurance problem in his State of the Union speech last Tuesday. It could be the desperation measure that finally leads to some kind of action.
The president is at his weakest right now, with public disapproval of the war in Iraq bleeding support for just about every other facet of his leadership. He needed something to try to bolster his standing. Prominent among his choices was health insurance.
The plan he unveiled is thoroughly Republican, based on providing tax breaks for insurance rather than insurance itself, but with it the party has finally acknowledged a crucial need that Democrats identified decades ago.
With a historic presidential campaign just cranking up, it is unlikely that the Democrats who now control Congress will be eager to partner with Bush on an issue they like to think is theirs. That would be unfortunate, since the issue really belongs to the millions of uninsured Americans who daily flirt with financial ruin.
Bush's plan would subject employer-based health insurance plans to federal income tax while also providing a standard deduction -- $15,000 for family coverage, $7,500 for individuals -- that would leave most plans unaffected. Americans without insurance provided by an employer could use the deduction to help buy private coverage.
The plan is hardly perfect. Deductions are a comparatively weak tool for providing tax relief. More significantly, the program looks more like a way to try to neutralize Democrats on this issue as the party's candidates start lining up for the 2008 election.
Nevertheless, Bush proposed it. He admitted that the number of uninsured Americans is a serious national problem. He suggested a solution, putting the issue into play for the duration of his administration, which includes the next election.
Democrats should not simply reject this plan. They should welcome it as the admission that it is and work to improve it. In that way, they will show Americans who are evaluating them and their presidential candidates that they are serious about attending to this problem, and not just using Americans at risk of calamity as political fodder.
No one should really expect Bush and Congress to agree on this issue. Their ideas on solving national problems are far too different. Fair enough. But they could begin narrowing the differences and, in doing so, increase the prospects of real action not too far down the road. That would be a real achievement.