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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Public Option As ‘Beachhead’

All of the arguments referenced in Ed’s post yesterday on the substance and symbolism of the public option in health care reform, pro and con, have some validity. Yes, the public option has been watered down to the point where it’s value has been seriously compromised. And, yes, it’s quite possible that “larger subsidies for insurance purchases and tighter regulation of private insurers would accomplish more” than the public option as presently constitued, as Ezra Klein argues.
On the other hand, bloggers Digby and Open Left‘s Chris Bowers share the concern that ditching the public option would compromise liberal strength, and that is sufficient grounds for continuing to fight for it. Liberal strength and solidarity are important. But there are a couple of better reasons to fight for the public option.
First, we need a public option ‘beachhead’ codified in health care reform. Even a weak public option can be strengthened as political circumstances improve down the road. Establish the precedent now, while we have a chance, even if it requires some sort of ‘trigger.’ If we fail now, it could damage prospects for enacting any kind of public option well into the forseeable future, especially if Dems lose seats next year, as many commentators expect. With even a rudimentary public option established, amendments to broaden access to it piece by piece, would later have a much lower profile and better chances of success. The ‘trigger mechanism’ could be loosened up later, with the loudest stage of the ideological clash over public vs, private behind us.
Secondly, I know ‘rules is rules,’ but to cave and allow a relatively small number of obstructionist Democrats kill the public option entirely when a majority of both houses of congress support the proposal sets a dangerous precedent. If a healthy majority of Dems opposed the public option, I would say, OK ditch it, even though it’s the best idea out there. But that’s not the case. In addition, public opinion indicates that most Americans want it. Are we going to let a few Senators trump all that?
If we do, it will only embolden them to do it again and again. Much better to make them justify their untenable positions under the increasingly hot glare of public scrutiny, until they begin to offer more reasonable compromises. Thus far, they have all been able to get by with vague generalities. Better to make them fully accountable than to roll over. Otherwise, there will be no end to it.

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