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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Public Option Held Hostage: What Now?

Nate Silver has a perceptive ‘where do we go from, here’-themed post, entitled “Is The Public Option Un-Un-Dead?” up at his FiveThirtyEight.com blog. Among Silver’s insightful observations, is this one that offers some comfort to public option advocates:

The fundamentals of the public option are, in some sense, still fairly strong. It polls well. Perhaps more importantly, the CBO seems to think that it would save money. For this reason, I don’t think we can completely rule out the possibility that Lincoln, Nelson, et. al. could be persuaded about its merits. Also, importantly, the bill that will be reported to the Senate floor will contain a public option, which leaves it with a certain amount of inertial momentum.

As for a strategy to save the public option, Silver takes a strong position favoring ‘persuasion’ over ‘strong arm tactics’:

The two strong-arm tactics that people seem to be excited about are reconciliation — a procedural maneuver to pass the bill through a majority-rules environment — and a “progressive block” strategy in which progressives threaten to vote down the health care bill unless a reasonable public option is included. I don’t think either of these are liable to have their desired effect.
What’s wrong with the progressive block strategy? For one thing, it’s not clear that the threat is credible. Technically speaking, the bill that the House passed did not contain what had initially been defined as a “robust” public option — meaning one pegged to Medicare rates. But only one or two progressives wound up voting against it for this reason, even though many had threatened to do so.
But suppose that the threat were credible — that Bernie Sanders and Roland Burris, say, were prepared to carry it out. And suppose that you’re Blanche Lincoln. Don’t you now have something close to the best — or perhaps the least bad — of both worlds? Now you can vote against a bill which is unpopular in your state and dodge some of the blame for doing so, insisting that it was those no good socialists lib’ruls who were responsible for torpedoing the bill’s chances.


This last part may be a bit of a stretch in that Arkansas voters, their doubts about the public option notwithstanding, may later decide that something should have been passed. As for the reconciliation route, Silver sees “a whole host of problems,” including uncertainty about which provisions would actually make it to a floor vote, and :

I expect that the reconciliation maneuver would play extremely poorly with the public. The health care bill is somewhat (although not overwhelmingly) unpopular to begin with. And believe it or not, the filibuster actually polls fairly well, at least in a theoretical sense. It might be one thing if the Republicans indeed exercised the filibuster to prevent a bill from coming to an up-or-down vote — then you might score some rhetorical points. But it’s another if you actively try to circumvent it via reconciliation or some sort of nuclear option. When you adopt a procedure that a majority opposes on process grounds in order to enact a bill that a plurality opposes on policy grounds, you’re asking for a world of hurt.

Silver also doubts that reconciliation advocates have the votes nailed down. Silver’s Senate reconciliation vote estimate may be a little on the cautious side, but that’s prudent in formulating a winning strategy. What optimism Silver harbors for the public option is based on the public opinion trend favoring it:

The reason I hold out some hope are because their objections to the public option are to varying degrees irrational. The health care bill isn’t especially popular at the moment. But the public option is making its numbers better, and not worse.

Silver reiterates that he does not see the public option as the “sine qua non of a “good” health care reform bill,” but he does see a political upside for Dems in next year’s mid term elections if a public option is passed, thus energizing the progressive base.
There are a lot of interesting reader comments following Silver’s post, including this retort from ‘Jackleone’:

If the public option is so minor, why is it the biggest target of the health insurance industry? My answer is that it’s the only real game changer. Everything else is regulations that can be tweaked and hacked at one way or another in the future or subsidies that will find their way to insurance company coffers. These other parts are more important in the short term, but the public option is the first entry for a more systematic change in health insurance.

And ‘Pinkybum,’ who adds:

…The current private insurance system is a joke because there is no incentive to reduce costs – only increase premiums. How do we drive down costs? Obviously the “free” market is not working and will NEVER work other countries have worked this out we have too many big business interests with politicians in their pockets to really change it. The government needs to get involved (somehow) and control costs or nothing will change…

But Silver’s most important point in the post is that persuasion offers better odds to public option supporters than does coercion. A strategy that puts some constituent heat on 4-5 key senators may indeed produce a stronger bill in terms of a public option than one which rides in on budget reconciliation. It may be that a couple of these Senators can get away with foot dragging on health reform because not enough of their constituents are paying attention, or have not been well-exposed to arguments favoring the public option. That can be changed by progressive activists.
There is an argument that a major reform should be established through the front door instead of the side door. But there is also a plausible argument that, hey, 51 votes is a majority and how a bill is passed will be forgotten a few months down the road, anyway. Moreover, if it’s a good bill that helps people fairly quickly, it will be appreciated regardless.
After all the strategic choices have been hashed out and the final vote has been cast, Dems should begin addressing a major flaw in American democracy that has been spotlighted during the debate. The comment that echoes most pointedly in this regard has to be Senator Sherrod Brown’s observation on CNN‘s ‘State of the Union’:

I don’t want four Democratic senators dictating to the other 56 of us and to the rest of the country — when the public option has this much support — that [a public option is] not going to be in it.”

It is appalling that four U.S. Senators can thwart the will of a majority of both houses of congress, and some thought should be given to procedural reforms to prevent it from happening again. Until then, progressive activists must do everything possible to build support for the public option in their states.

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