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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Long Goodbye to the Public Option

It’s already died a thousand deaths, but the idea of a public option as a component of health care reform seems to have finally expired with the cold water dashed by Sen. Jay Rockefeller on the scenario under which the Senate would add a public option in a reconciliation bill. This is momentous because Rockefeller was well known as the most passionate defenders of the public option in the Senate. It’s generally being interpreted as an act of honesty by someone who knows the votes aren’t there, and doesn’t want to perpetuate false hopes aroused by the recent movement back towards the public option among Senate Democrats.
Some progressives are angry at Rockefeller. Others blame the White House, particularly given Robert Gibbs’ statement today that the votes aren’t there. One observer, TPM’s Brian Beutler, even suggests the possibility that this is all a bluff to avoid complicating Thursday’s heath care summit, and that Democrats might revive the public option yet again in the wake of what is sure to be a contemptuous rejection of the President’s proposal at the summit.
That’s probably wishful thinking, or at least a real reach. But it’s certainly maddening to many progressives to see their hopes raised and dashed again. I’m not a public option hardliner myself, but do understand that for many single-payer advocates the public option has always represented a big compromise with the idea of a system dominated by private health insurers, who will benefit significantly from the new customers they will obtain via an individual mandate. Moreover, it’s been deeply frustrating to watch senators in both parties who claim to be mainly worried about the cost to taxpayers of health reform draw a line in the sand against the public option, which would almost certainly ;reduce those costs significantly.
Still, the only two things that have really changed since the Senate passed a bill without a public option on Christmas Eve is that Democrats lost their 60th Senate seat, and nonetheless worked out a process for compromising between House and Senate bills and getting a final product enacted. Until a couple of weeks ago, virtually no one thought that final product might include a public option. Now it looks most unlikely that it will-yet again. The long goodbye to this iconic detail of health reform continues just a bit longer.

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