The Success of the Public Option Campaign


Probably not that many people feel this way this morning, but I think part of what we’re seeing at the moment is that the organizing campaign around the public option has been an enormous success that did a lot to improve health care policy. I think that the deal emerging in the Senate leaves us with a package that’s not just “worth passing” but actually as Kevin Drum says a really good bill. If Barack Obama signs it into law, he’ll go down as the president with the most progressive legislative accomplishments since Lyndon Johnson. You’ll say that the American welfare state was inaugurated by FDR, substantially expanded by Johnson, and given its final shape by Obama.

So what about the public option? Well, my gut tells me that “centrist” Senators weren’t going to vote for health reform until they extracted a pound of flesh and did something to make progressives squeal. Initially I think people thought the center was semi-corruptly aiming for a substantive payoff, which is why the public option was quickly neutered to become the industry-friendly “level-playing field” public option. Then they thought the center was maybe suffering electoral fear, so we got the various permutations of opt-in and opt-out. But even though an opt-in, level-playing field public option would do no real harm to the insurance industry, even that wasn’t good enough. They wanted to win. And so they have.

But had the left taken the advice of the wonks and surrendered earlier—in particular, had Harry Reid not included a public option in his merged version of the health care bill—then I think Lieberman et. al. might well have dreamed up something else to oppose. As it stands, the level-playing field public option took a bullet for the team. And consequently, millions of currently uninsured Americans are closer than ever to having insurance and the rest of us are closer than ever to having a sense of security that if our own insurance goes away we won’t be left high and dry.