PO’d Over the Public Option

It’s an appealing idea to think that something has power, that action is precipitated by the simple exertion of will. It’s appealing to the left in particular, I think, because it brings with it the hope that progress can be made. When Ezra Klein repudiated Matt Taibbi’s narrative that Obama’s economic team is stocked full of callous millionaires who have an interest in upholding the current financial system, he was doing so by gauging the reality of the situation.

I don’t believe that Taibbi’s fulminations are anything other than the indignity begotten from a broken system, and yet his appealing morality story doesn’t always hold true. Writing a piece about healthcare reform in the Rolling Stones, Taibbi argued that Democrats could have begun negotiations with a single-payer system and bartered down to the compromise of a public option.

But the Hard Lessons of Joe Lieberman and the Medicare buy-in teach us that negotiations are only useful when the two parties honestly pursue the resolution of a middle ground. If conservative Democrats don’t feel pressured or threatened into compromise by constituencies, lobbyists, or anybody else who can change the trajectory of their careers, then their only remorse comes through the failure to absolve the healthcare system of its most glaring woes. In other words, if Lieberman truly doesn’t want a public option, then it doesn’t matter what Democrats start with.

The public option is an easy sell, and that is part of the problem. It became a cornerstone of reform in the minds of its supporters, a magical panacea that could conjure up a simple solution to a large problem – maybe not to the grizzly wonks and reporters, but certainly to segments of the populace. Perhaps, then, it also became an easy foil to the opposition, a distraction from the real measures of reform.

Even though the public option represents another casualty in the fight for votes, many liberals rightly saw it as a necessary condition for which reform could be achieved, but those who now advocate scrapping the bill and starting over are also, I believe, failing to recognize the stark reality of the situation.

Democrats may want to punish insurers, and some in the insurance industry may have a school boy obsession with winning the fight for reform, but in this case the beneficial results of reform happen to converge with both public and private interests. There is no good reason to scrap a plan which covers over thirty million additional people, lowers premiums, cuts into the deficit, regulates insurers, creates a national exchange, and sets up pilot programs in order to explore future cost control measures, which can be instituted in far easier fashion than traditional legislation. Igor Volsky has about as clear of a representation as I have seen for why the reform as it is currently constituted will make a difference.

Furthermore, the current bill probably stretches political capital to its very elasticity in order to brandish all sixty votes necessary. If, as Howard Dean suggests, we try to pass the public option via reconciliation, then we also have to trade in important regulations and reform for a public option that might be stronger but might also contribute to an overall weaker initiative. It’s at best a zero sum game. The public option could be passed through reconciliation later, but that requires we pass this bill first.

There is also the cost of delay to consider. Now that the bill is nearing passage, the act of obstruction will be amplified. No Democrat wants to be known as the person who killed healthcare reform. But if the process is thrown back into chaos, then the uncertainty of its passage is heightened inexorably. And if there is one thing that the public detests, it is uncertainty, because it reduces the image of the government as a place where things can be accomplished in the eyes of a hesitant nation, fomenting restlessness and distrust.

Certainly public polls are terrible measures of legislative policies, but they are sufficient gauges of political climate. If negotiations continue unabated into the New Year, then public opinion will continue to sour, and political nerves will continue to fray. The only way that the bill can die is with a whimper, and so the uncertainty that will inevitably come out of reneged legislation might be its ultimate undoing.

Whether it’s fair or not, this process will inevitably be a referendum on Obama. Pass this legislation and he will be able to pursue further initiatives. But if he doesn’t, then he might be known as a president who cannot get things done (a reality that Republicans are all too aware of). Call it the potency of action. Just by virtue of breaking a filibuster, a CNN poll found that support amongst Democrats for healthcare reform jumped by ten points. If this bill passes early next year and without further delay, then Obama can enter the State of the Union address with the psychological backing of a major accomplishment.

The past also tells us that failure may mean that future attempts will be shelved for another decade and become incrementally less ambitious. Reform certainly benefits from an administration that is serious about tackling the issue (like Nixon and FDR before), but it’s also important to remember that the insurers, drug companies, and providers are also on board because the current system is swiftly becoming unsustainable. With the convergence of so much good fortune, there may never be a better attempt than now. Those who mean to scrap the current bill for legislation that may not necessarily be superior need to keep in mind the consequences of failure. It might come to define an entire generation.