The title of this post is stolen shamelessly from Paul Krugman, who wrote an excellent piece explaining why the public option is important in the context of the health reform proposal, both in terms of policy and politics.
But without taking anything away from what Krugman wrote, there's another reason why the fight for the public option matters: its outcome will demonstrate the extent to which progressives do (or do not) wield clout on national policy.
To be clear: I'm not advocating throwing weight around for the sake of throwing weight around. I'm saying that the fight for the public option is about more than just enacting into law a good and a popular idea opposed primarily by conservative ideologues and established corporate interests, it's also about showing that progressives can hold their ground and are a political force to be reckoned with.
In large part because the public option is such a no-brainer, almost all the arguments raised against it are either circular (Democrats like Kent Conrad saying that they don't support the public option because Democrats like Kent Conrad don't support the public option) or based in fantasy (the public option is a government takeover of health care).
Even liberal policy pundits who are willing to abandon the public option (like Ezra Klein or Steven Pearlstein) concede that it is a good idea. It's true that they aren't as enthusiastic about it as advocates like Paul Krugman or Robert Reich, but they still think it would be better to have than not.
Where the Kleins and Pearlsteins of the world go wrong is in assuming that it would not be possible to get a public option. Obviously, it will be hard. But nobody has demonstrated that it is impossible. It would be one thing if they were saying that the public option isn't a good idea, or if it really were a choice between reform without a public option and no reform at all. But that's not the scenario we face.
The top Democratic elected officials -- President Obama, Speaker Pelosi, and Majority Leader Reid -- have consistently said that they support the public option, arguing that it addresses an important need: providing a competitive choice in a health insurance market where all individuals are required to buy insurance.
Their support of the public option is not dogmatic, however. If somebody were to develop an alternative to the public option that could achieve the same goals, they have said they are willing to explore it.
Unlike Klein and Pearlstein, however, Obama, Pelosi, and Reid have said that if there isn't a public option, there needs to be something equivalent to it. There's nothing inherently wrong with that position -- as long as they don't put window dressing on a bad idea, claiming that it is just as effective as the public option, when in fact it isn't. The problem is that it seems all to plausible that they could end up doing just that.
To date, nobody has come up with viable alternative to the public option, at least not in the context of the current health insurance reform framework. (Competing frameworks, like single payer, might be better than the current framework, but they aren't alternatives to the public option, which component of reform.) By the standards outlined by Obama, Pelosi, and Reid, the public option should therefore be presumed to be part of the ultimate plan, yet we still here chatter -- much of which is coming from their offices -- that the public option won't end up being in the final plan.
The fact that the public option addresses an important need and doesn't have a serious alternative helps explain why the public option remains so popular in the court of public opinion, and it explains why progressive activists have been working so hard to defend it. Unfortunately, however, we still find ourselves in a situation in which every Republican in Congress opposes the public option -- and a sizable minority of conservative Democrats in Congress are joining them.
Try this thought experiment: imagine you are Chief of Staff to the President or Speaker of the House or Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate, and imagine that your only goal is to pass health care reform legislation.
You know that the public option is good policy, and you know that it's popular, but that's not the key question you're asking yourself. You're asking yourself: "What's the easiest way for me to get a bill passed?"
If you're Senate Majority Leader and can avoid it, you'd rather not use reconciliation -- even though it would only require a majority instead of a supermajority, it would still be a procedural challenge, and if you can get a bill through a different path, you're probably going to take it. Meanwhile, if you're Speaker, you'd rather avoid a huge battle with the Senate. As long as you can get your caucus behind the Senate bill, you'll move the legislation. And if you're Chief of Staff, you just want to see progress, getting a bill get through that your boss can live with so you can move onto the next big thing.
If you're Senate Majority Leader, you know that the only way you're going to get the public option through is reconciliation or by hoping that your own caucus will refuse to filibuster a reform bill. You also know that if you dump the public option, you're probably going to be able to get those conservative Democrats plus maybe a Republican or two.
As long as the progressives don't bail (and you can be sure that they won't, based on past practice), you know you've got 60 votes and can pass a reform bill. You know that the House Speaker and the White House know this, and you know they are willing to compromise, so your decision is easy. You drop the public option. It's the easiest way to get to yes.
If you're the Speaker or the Chief of Staff, you're just happy to see the Senate pass something, because you know you can bring your progressives along. Sure, dropping the public option means dumping a good idea that is popular and important to the party base. But your only goal is to get a health care bill passed as efficiently as possible. And you know you can steamroll the progressives, so that's what you do. After all, it's always been the way to go.
So you sacrifice the progressives, and you don't think twice about it. It's nothing personal. You might not even think it's the best policy. But it's just the way it works, and you've got to get something done. So do you it, knowing that it will work. And whether or not you like it, you know that as long as progressives let themselves get steamrolled, that's always the way it will work.
Lawrence O'Donnell explained this very dynamic the other night on Countdown with Keith Olbermann. It was a sobering few minutes of television, well worth watching:
Excerpt (full transcript at DKTV):OLBERMANN: We also keep hearing that the White House has been frustrated that the public option has gotten far too much attention in its opinion in this entire debate. How did they misread this? It seems that the public option is the hinge on which forcing insurance prices down exists or does not exist.
O’DONNELL: Well, what they misread, Keith, was how much uproar this would cause on the left. And they were using the old playbook, the 1994 playbook.
And what you have to remember about 1994 is, there were no blogs in 1994, and for the 15 — for the 15-year-olds out there, I hate to tell you, but MSNBC did not exist in 1994. And so, when we were legislating this in 1994, we did not worry about risking the wrath of the left if we start — if we were trying to move the bill towards the middle, because we knew the left would have to be with us in a vote when we actually get to the Senate floor and the House floor.
That’s the normal formula that the Democrats don’t worry about the left. And that is the formula that they’re using this time.
I — Nancy Pelosi firmly believes that when the moment comes, she can gather her caucus together, tell them that she fought harder for the public option than Barack Obama did, than Harry Reid did, than any senator did. No one fought harder for it than Nancy Pelosi, and she is now telling her troops they’re going to have to go forward without it. That moment is going to come.
The only way in which I might part company with O'Donnell is that I don't think it's over until it's over. I still think we can win this fight, and if we do win the fight, we'll not only help pass into law a good, popular idea, but we'll also turn on its head the political calculus that, in the end, progressives -- and particularly, progressives in Congress -- will always cave.
Unless progressives in Congress actually demonstrate they have a spine on this issue, nobody will ever take them seriously -- nor should they. But if progressives in Congress do put up a fight, if they show the decades-old political calculus needs to be updated, then they will have won a major victory that goes beyond just the issue at hand.
The public option should be passed on its own merits. It's good policy, and it's got popular support. It's primary opposition is motivated by ideology or self-interest. It was proposed by President Obama during the campaign, and he won a majority of the vote. There's 60 Democrats in the Senate and an overwhelming majority in the house. On the face of it, passing the public option should be about the easiest no-brainer in politics.
But it's not. And that fact poses a real test for progressives -- and a real opportunity. Progressives can finally change the power dynamics in Congress by proving that they will hold their ground. Getting the public option would be one kind of victory, but proving that progressives area potent political force would be another.
And the potential for that victory is one of the most important reasons that the public option matters so much. We can't give up the fight.