Having finally, belatedly, realized just how extraordinarily unpopular the individual mandate is and will likely remain for years to come, some Senate Democrats are now searching for an alternative. From Politico:

A handful of moderate Senate Democrats are looking for ways to roll back the highly contentious individual mandate — the pillar of President Barack Obama’s health care law — a sign that red-state senators are prepared to assert their independence ahead of the 2012 elections.

[...]

The provision has become one of the most controversial of an already-controversial law, especially in red states, where Republicans have seized on recent court rulings to characterize it as an unconstitutional federal power grab.

[Ben] Nelson, who faces a tough road to win a third term next year, asked the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Budget Office to outline alternatives to the mandate, potentially by bringing large numbers of people into insurance coverage through open and closed enrollment periods. He may offer legislation once the congressional scorekeepers report back to him.

Despite claiming otherwise, this is clearly a political move given how overwhelming the country opposes the idea of the government forcing you to give your money to the unpopular health insurance industry. Of course, it is also a policy issue to the extent that it is hard to carry out a policy when the electorate hates it.

If Democrats had listened to warnings about what a political disaster the mandate would be, this problem could have been fixed before the law was passed and the law might have ended up slightly less unpopular.

There are many alternatives to the mandate.

The good news for these politically terrified moderate Democrats is that this individual mandate is totally unnecessary to making the system function. There are many viable alternatives that would work as well or better.

Given the political leanings of the vulnerable Democrats, I suspect that they would be most likely to embrace a combination of a heavily advertised open enrollment period with a back premium penalty for those who sign up late. This could be possibly combined with an automatic enrollment in the lowest cost OPM “National Plan” that requires individuals to affirmatively opt-out. It is tough to image whipping up similar huge political anger for the fact that the government has created a special time of the year to buy discounted insurance.

I guess realizing a terrible mistake late is better than never. These terrified Democrats should feel zero need to join President Obama in defending his bizarre flip-flop embrace of the highly unpopular individual mandate. There is no reason they shouldn’t reject and quickly replace it with any of the viable alternatives that would be just as effective a policy without the horrible political baggage.