A Weakened Public Option: Still Obama’s Best Choice?

By Channing Kennedy Sep 09, 2009

As President Obama prepares to address Congress tonight (8PM EST), the public option’s future seems dim, but not extinguished. Obama is expected to endorse it, but at this point, even the most liberal of proposed HCR bills has a less-than-robust version of the much-debated government program. Talks in the ‘Gang of Six,’ the bipartisan committee drafting the Senate’s HCR bill, have fallen apart, and Democrat Sen. Baucus is dissolving the committee. This is a good thing, since Sen. Grassley and Sen. Enzi, two Republican members, had made it all but explicit that they were only there to barricade proceedings with a smile. Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, the third Republican member of the committee, had found herself in a position of power as the only Republican willing to listen to anyone, and thus the focus of everyone’s attention. She came out against the public option today, in favor of a ‘trigger,’ something insurance companies have been pushing — but since the committee is dead, it doesn’t really matter. Baucus has come out with a bill, which is good, because that means he’s not just sitting on HCR until it dies. It’s not great, though, because man, the bill is pretty bad, relatively speaking (and objectively speaking!). Still — a terrible bill is better than stalling the entire process to death. Ezra Klein explains the rest of the process:

… [H]ealth-care reform is in pretty good shape. Bills have now passed four of the five relevant committees. The outlier committee, the Senate Finance Committee, is circulating its outline and seems likely to pass a bill within the next week or so. At that point, the bills will go to the floor of the House and Senate, where passage isn’t certain but seems pretty likely. And once the bills pass the House and the Senate, final passage of the conference report (the merged bill) is a good bet. And the president’s signature is then a sure thing.

The best-case scenario for the public option would be for Rep. Waxman’s version to make it through the conference report. And that’s not saying much: Waxman is perhaps the best ally that HCR has on the Hill, and is a liberal veteran who understands how to get things done in Congress, and the best he could negotiate was a public option that would enroll a few million Americans. That means it won’t have the heft to really compete with private insurers, unlike Medicare. And that’s the best-case, far-left scenario from all of our available options. Does that mean the public option isn’t worth falling on our sword over? The NYT’s Paul Krugman disagrees, saying a competitive government-run insurance plan that doesn’t need to advertise or cherry-pick clients is objectively good, and a win for Obama would be objectively good for future policy pushes. A successful program would be a great way to put a nail in the coffin of Reaganism, that the government can and should help people out in more ways than just getting out of the way. (Not than any dyed-in-the-wool Reaganistas will ever admit it; they’ll be too busy enjoying their Medicare.) Are we going to get the robust single-payer public-option socialist health care plan of our dreams? Nope. Should we be disappointed? Yes. Most medical bankruptcies happen to people with health insurance — and while subsidies for private insurers may help, the public option sure won’t be able to. But we’re a lot closer than we’ve ever been. Neil Sinhababu has a positive outlook on what’s ahead. And let’s not forget that this has been a long journey. So what does Obama need to do tonight? In my opinion, he needs to dispense with the bogus scuttlebutt that the public option isn’t polling well, call out the Republicans for not negotiating in good faith, and say loud and proud that he supports the public option. That might not help us get it. But it’ll let us know that’s he’s still the captain of our team.