Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Public Option: Hated By Literally Every American

Towards the end of the 2008 campaign cycle there was a curious phenomenon that could be seen among liberals and conservatives. The enormous pro-Obama threads in Debate and Discussion were jam-packed with liberals who were sure that Obama was going to lose, people who feverishly interpreted every statistically-insignificant change in the polls as incontrovertible proof that the end was nigh. This was despite the fact that Obama had held a considerable lead over McCain ever since Hillary conceded, with the brief exception of a few days after the Palin reveal. In contrast, conservative forums were constantly posting exuberant celebratory threads, welcoming what they reckoned would be a Republican landslide victory. Consistent polling evidence to the contrary was dismissed entirely in favor of fantasizing about the glory of a Palin presidency- excuse me, vice-presidency.

Initially it’s easy to chalk this up to the 2000 and 2004 elections. 2000 came down to a handful of votes in one swing state, and then ultimately to a handful of judges in DC. 2004 was a Democratic disaster from start to finish. Why wouldn’t liberals be wary of even the most assured success, when Democrats have shown over and over that they’re capable of somehow losing despite every advantage? But if this is the explanation, then 2006 should have changed everything. The GOP was smashed in both the House and Senate, much to the surprise of Republicans across the country. Their pundits hadn’t prepared them for the possibility of seeing their party swept out of Congress in such a dramatic fashion. Coming off the heels of 2006, shouldn’t Republicans have been a bit more sober about their chances? And why were Obama supporters so sure that a slip from a 9% lead to an 8.9% lead was a sure sign of electoral doom?

I’m not aware of any definitive answers there- I’ve seen people propose that it’s due to different group dynamics, or that the real reason is rooted in neurobiology. Neither claim seems totally satisfying. Personally, I suspect some of it has to do with the extent to which Republicans control many of the debates in contemporary American politics. The thing that got me thinking about this today was one of the many editorial cartoons that have weighed in on healthcare reform recently:

This one is hardly a fluke- cartoonists have been recycling this same cartoon for months. GOVERNMENT-RUN SOCIALIST HEALTHCARE is always seen killing or being killed by Uncle Sam/ noble elephants/ an anonymous everyman. This one makes it very obvious, but most of them in some way imply that this SOCIALIST HEALTHCARE ABOMINATION is something that Obama is forcing on an unwilling public. Public opinion killed reform, eh? A curious statement when you consider the popularity of the public option. As per WaPo:

On the issue that has been a flash point in the
national debate, 57 percent of all Americans now
favor a public insurance option, while 40 percent
are opposed. Support has risen since mid-August,
when a bare majority, 52 percent, said they
favored it.

If run by the states and available only to those
who lack affordable private options, support for
a public plan jumps to 76 percent. Under those
circumstances, even a majority of Republicans, 56
percent, would be supportive, about double their
level of support without such a limitation.
Despite the millions of dollars health insurance companies have been spending to attack the public option, it started with a (small) majority and has become more popular as time has passed. This is pretty remarkable, considering how the debate has gone: the White House spent months staying largely silent or even dismissive of the public option, while insurance companies and their paid advocates among the Blue Dogs and Republicans loudly denounced it. Republican pundits have played their usual part in propagandizing the issue: the TeaBaggers seem to think that the American people have unanimously rejected B. HUSSEIN Obama and his attempt to kill the elderly whilst firebombing hospitals. Are we seeing shades of October 2008, which they spent gloating about the impending defeat that voters were surely going to deliver to the Democratic Party?

The Republicans are currently in a greatly-deserved state of political irrelevancy. Meaningful reform is going to depend on what the Democrats come up with, which makes it extremely frustrating to see them watering it down to appease Republicans and Blue Dogs. The Blue Dogs are being particularly intolerable here- some are still insisting that they can’t support the public option because they fear voter backlash back in their districts. Polls showing that the public option is popular in their own districts hasn’t made any impression on the Blue Dogs, which couldn’t possibly have anything to do with how much money health insurance companies have thrown at them.

It’s certainly possible that these donations are entirely responsible for the stances Blue Dogs are taking- surely their staff members have alerted them to the dangers of rejecting the public option and scuttling reform. As Bowers put it:

If no health care legislation passes, and
Democrats lose seats as a result, Blue Dogs are
the people who will lose the seats, not
Progressives. Even if Klein is correct and
Democrats lose a bunch of seats because
Progressives blocked it, Blue Dogs are actually
the ones who will bear the brunt of those losses.
As such, Blue Dogs have more to lose if health
care fails to pass than Progressives.

If another Republican wave really is coming, Blue
Dogs will be the first Democrats to lose.

Their willingness to put their careers on the line by making unpopular and stupid decisions is what makes me wonder if the Blue Dogs have bought into the ongoing narrative that has such a strong grip on America- that no matter what the polls say, liberal politicians and liberal legislation are out of step with the voters.

Perhaps it does all come down to contributions from insurers and pharmacy corporations, but I have a hard time concluding that popular wisdom and the flood of counterfactual commentary about the public option hasn’t played some role in getting us to where we are today. Because so much of the discussion is taking places behind closed doors on the Hill or in fact-resistant right-wing echo chambers it’s also hard to see what role the public can play in supporting the public option. Maybe progressives should pretend to vehemently oppose the public option, throwing the entire debate out of equilibrium and potentially forcing conservatives and the Blue Dogs to support it out of rote habit?


  1. Well said.

    Going along with what you're saying, I like this strategy by Pelosi:
    The House health care bill is getting cheaper, but Democrats aren't boasting just yet. Because when they ultimately break silence the hope is to present conservative Democrats in both chambers with a bill that will walk the walk of fiscal responsibility--including a public option, which is projected to save the government billions.

    As always, the legislative process is unpredictable, and the Senate is operating in isolation from the House. But with the public option potentially in the balance, Speaker Pelosi's goal is this: present conservative Democrats in both chambers with a Hobson's choice between a public option bill and a potentially more expensive Senate bill that may have no public option at all.

    It's funny that there's this much of a battle over something that easily clears most of the usual hurdles that the conservative democrats throw up. It's cheaper, provides competition and it's popular with large portion of the public in their districts. It would be nice to have a robust bill that's SO MUCH cheaper that it either forces the douche caucus to vote for it or publicly admit that they are health industry owned whores who care nothing about cost/the deficit and so on.

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