Now You See It, Now You Don't, or The Curious Case of The Disappearing Public Option

I would have sworn I heard President Obama say last night that he "supports" the public option. He did it in that cool and non-committal way he has been doing it since he became President -- he supports, but stays open-minded and not dogmatic, and is open to suggestions.

It is a disturbing kind of open-mindedness, in my opinion, and part of that crazy pragmatism Obama has been accused of by many progressives, including his own doctor. There were already worrisome statements in his speech with regard to PO -- for example, that it would include at best only about 5% of our population (so how strong can it be? what will be the real criteria for participation? can people like us, not poor, but no longer able to afford their overpriced, individually bought coverage sign up? etc.) or his insistence that it's only a small part of the reform package, and so on.

As soon as I got on-line, I saw e-mails from the usual suspects: Firedoglake, SEIU, New York Senator Kristine Hilldebrand, imploring me to support them and/or call my representative again ASAP and insist on the public option in our health care reform bill. Or write letters to the editor (per FDL).

The e-mails were urgent in tone, stating, sensibly enough, that even though our President supports the public option, he did not say he will fight for it. Surely these guys know what's cooking. There was also an e-mail from President Obama urging me/us to contact our reps in support of his reform efforts. (BTW, I've done it all numerous times.)

Then came Charlie Rose on TV with his post-speech discussion, which involved Democratic Reps. Anthony Weiner from New York and Kathleen Dahlkemper from PA, Al Hunt from Bloomberg News, Joseph Califano, David Brooks from NYT, Republican Rep. Thaddeus McCotter from Michigan, and Rich Lowry, editor of National Review.

First, Rose talked about the health care reform with Reps. Weiner, Dahlkemper and McCotter. The former two were strongly in favor of PO (Dahlkemper is a Blue Dog who became convinced that only PO can honestly reform the system at this point), while McCotter did what Republicans usually do -- opposed everything they said, though in the manner reasonable enough for a GOPer, pointing out, for example that Dems themselves are not sure what they want in their final bill.

True, though he did this with that annoying customary GOP glee and satisfaction over the Dems confusion. I know, it's hard to blame him for that; however, his behavior again shows the Republican M.O. -- sit back, do nothing/offer nothing of value, and watch the Dems screw up whatever it is to screw up. (BTW, McCotter is one cool cucumber -- and he looks like one too: tall, bald, shiny and shapeless.)

And then something strange happened: Rose parted with Weiner and Dahlkemper, retained McCotter, and brought to the table Brooks, Hunt, Califano, and the geek extraordinaire, Rich Lowry, dripping with disdain (he is, after all, from National Review). The mood of the whole gathering changed, and good punditing times were had by most, while they all, collectively, put PO to death.

I thought, wait a minute! Was I beamed up to some kind of a twilight zone? I could have sworn I heard Obama express his support for PO, yet the whole punditry forum, the majority of which was positively inclined toward Obama, declared PO dead on arrival, with as much as a hand-waving ironic gesture from Brooks, indicating that he never believed PO was even seriously considered by the President. Neither did Hunt or Califano, though Lowry had to stress that he remained wary of anything in the health bill that smacked of anything publicky and stated, with his trademark disdain, shared with McCotter, that progressive Democrats would be stupid to insist on PO and ruin the reform efforts by doing so. (Though I strongly suspect he may be hoping for just that.)

Brooks went so far as saying that Obama will not stick by PO because he knows well that Dems will support any reform efforts and will take whatever comes in the name of "reform," if only for their political survival reasons. Most agreed that Obama essentially endorsed Baucus's plan in his speech. (I missed that, but that's what they heard as the bottom line.) McCotter -- gleefully, of course -- did his Republican shtick, insisting that the "government-takeover of health care" is not a solution and that we should start from the beginning, in a true bipartisan fashion. We know what that means, of course, so no decoding necessary.

But the way things stand, PO may indeed be DOA, what with the president's open-mindedness and the GOP obstinate refusal to grow a conscience. Brooks et al. brought up, rather off-handedly, the idea of co-ops or a trigger as alternatives to PO, but did not linger on the subject as for them this was a moot point to begin with.

Their nonchalance was educational, I must say. The pundits would be happy with semi-dysfunctional co-ops which have proven to be no better than the private insurance cartel in delivering cost-effective and humane health care, or the (even more?) ridiculous idea of a trigger for PO, should the private insurance mafia decided not to shape up. (And what are the chances of that? They had decades to shape up and we have no evidence of them even trying. On the contrary.) As for that "trigger," isn't over 20,000 people dying each year because they cannot afford medical care a trigger enough?

BTW, one thing that came across clearly enough again is that for GOPers money is the only thing that matters. (It's awesome to be rich!) Rose tried several times to ask McCotter about the human and humane reasons for enacting the health care reform, and each time McCotter's responses were about money. Each time with that ironic smirk on his cucumbery face.

I don't know why I continue to be shocked by the GOPers evident lack of conscience and human feeling, but I am. I still hope to see some sign of a heart somewhere among them -- they can't all be psychopaths, can they? (File this question under the rhetorical rubric.)

After Rose, I went searching for others' informed opinions about the future of PO and found discouraging confirmations of Brooks et al's assessment. David Sirota, as usual, had a sobering take on Obama's speech, and I found this comment from Don McCanne, MD, on the Physicians for A National Health Program forum:

(...) the debate over the public option has been a very successful diversionary tactic on the part of the insurance industry. The real debate should have been over whether or not to replace the private insurance plans with a single public plan. The insurance industry won outright since we never had that debate.

Now everyone will have to buy a private plan with inadequate benefits (65-70% actuarial value), and unaffordable premiums, with inadequate subsidies, and with continuing unaffordable cost escalation. This will negatively impact middle-income individuals and families the most.

And our out? Those hardship waivers that will waive the fines we would face for committing the criminal act of being uninsured. And with time, more and more of us will qualify for them.

The progressives drew a line on the public option. Maybe now they should back up and draw the line on single payer. That could give us a fresh start on reform that works for the people instead of the insurers.

And Robert Borosage has this to say, among other things:

This president deserves a better opposition both on the right -- one willing to enter an adult conversation about how to solve the staggering challenges this country faces -- and on the left, one willing to push him hard for fundamental reform, and pressure those in both parties standing in the way. He is ill-served by the petty corruption and ideological venom of the right, and the docility of the left. If we are going to be able to overcome the entrenched corporate interests and lobbies that dole out money to conservatives in both parties, we will need a much more independent and aggressive progressive mobilization.


1. Pundits love to hear themselves talk. For them, issues like the health care reform (or wars) are a political spectacle where they act as interested observers or gamblers putting their bets on certain outcomes and watching, sometimes with passion, sometimes without, whether their predictions "win." It's a game of sophisticated, but inhumane, one-upmanship. For the rest of us, it's a matter of life and death, literally. Sad that this is lost on the pundits, but not surprising, given their lot in life.

2. GOP consists of, by and large, psychopathically disturbed individuals, devoid of conscience and higher human feelings. (I remain open to revise this statement if and when I see a GOPer with even a minuscule evidence of a heart.)

3. PO is dying. It may be dead already, we are just not told about it to prevent excessive panic among progressives and retain the illusion of the President still yielding some bargaining power in shaping the reform process. So call/write/do what you have to do to keep it alive following the links above.

Cross-posted at The Middle of Nowhere.


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