Joe Klein: Public Option Support Has Lost To Right-Wing Smears

11/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Over at Time's Swampland today, Joe Klein takes on the public option in a post titled "What The Public Option Actually Does." The actual work of explaining the public option is something that Joe outsources, without much specificity (no link to an actual explanation is provided) to the Washington Post's Ezra Klein. The bulk of the post takes up an entirely different issue: the provision of "two reasons why someone--like [Klein], for example--who supports universal health insurance might oppose a public option."

The first of these reasons is a concern that the public option "sets up an unfair competition with private insurers, leading to a government-provided, rather than just a government-funded insurance system," an outcome that Klein doesn't think is "very likely." I'm a little more perplexed by his second reason:

2. the right-wing smear campaign has succeeded and moderate Democrats, and a few stray Republicans, who might otherwise vote for health care reform won't do so...perhaps enough to kill legislation that would make health care more available and affordable for Americans, while prohibiting insurance companies from denying you access because of pre-existing conditions or an increased need for care.

Klein goes on to say that it's this circumstance that "seems a plausible reason to oppose a public option," and then he goes on to extol the virtues of a public option "trigger." This notion that the existence of a "right wing smear campaign" provides a plausible reason to oppose the public option is altogether strange to me. It seems to me that this would bring about a pair of bad outcomes.

In the short term, you get a vastly less effective health care reform bill, and the basic admission that, once again, legislators have kicked the can down the road, ensuring that some future Congress will have to return to the issue and attempt to get it right. Whatever short-run, incremental gains a weak-tea reform package provides would be little more than a fig leaf, covering over the larger legislative failure.

Of course, the longer-term effect of Klein's suggestion would be the more pernicious. If you cave in on support for a public option because there was a campaign of smears and lies arrayed against it, it only teaches the lesson that campaigns of smears and lies work. That sort of surrender only guarantees that similar campaigns of smears and lies form the body of opposition on all future policy debates.

If anything, it's a less plausible reason to drop support for a public option. Which do you think is better? Returning home to tell your constituents that they got weak legislation because the process was really hard and your opponents said mean things about you, or being able to tell your constituents that you fought for the best possible bill but were ultimately undone by an opposition that you can point to and blame? Only in the latter instance do you earn the right to fight another day.

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