The looming defeat of a progressive health care bill is a much greater disaster than meets the eye. The right wing will learn, as they already surmised from previous skirmishes, that they can blow the Democrats out of the water. They will use the same smear tactics, emotional lies, and talk radio campaigns to defeat whatever other progressive moves of any significance are left on the diluted and impoverished Obama agenda. And they will further water down whatever laws have been passed, the weak cap and trade bill for instance. Moreover, the right wing will use the same tactics during the forthcoming mid-term elections as a dry run for 2012. By that time they will have convinced the masses that Obama was born on Mars, is a Soviet agent, and will take away the people's right to shoot each other.
The liberals in response have been lame beyond belief. They have set up web pages that clarify the facts and provide corrections to misinformation -- as if this was some kind of scholarly debate and the right and its followers will yield to the kind of corrections editors of scientific publications are prone to make. Liberals have called for a "stable, quality care" system, a phrase which has less appeal than last week's dish water. They favor "evidence based policies," a term that may excite a handful of policy wonks in a handful of think tanks. And they have been "negotiating": making grand concessions to the other side without getting anything in return, just to show how conciliatory, bipartisan, and reasonable liberals can be.
The time has come for liberals to take off their gloves. A good place to start is to conduct hearings (Henry Waxman, where are you when we need you?) and town hall meetings fully dedicated to the ill doings of the private, profit-making sector. Lets hear about the sick who were denied care by insurance companies using one technicality or another; about private hospitals and clinics that pay recruiters to bring in patients from across the country in order to subject them to surgeries they do not need; about the health care dollars that are pocked by high salaried executives, their mistresses and sons-in-law, and back room backers; about elders allowed to wallow in their own waste to increase profits at nursing homes, and about other senior citizens who were refused treatments in order to hasten their deaths after they paid the assisted living facility's high entrance fees. In short, liberals need to show that the private, profit-making sector is riddled with abuse, corruption, and malpractice. Only then will a public option shine.
If you feel at this point that such accusations are unfair, that one cannot generalize, that there are good people in the private sector, that public institutions also have some failings -- then you should look in the mirror and see one reason the right wing is winning. This is not a theoretical debate which can be settled by checking the decimal points. At issue are overarching conclusions and basic sensibilities: is the profit-making sector a more trustworthy provider of health care than the public one? Should it at least face some public competition? The debate has to focus on this level and employ a language most people can be affected by--or we may as well wave another white liberal flag and not bother to join the fight. And a fight it is, with much more than the future of health care at stake.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at The George Washington University, and the author of The Moral Dimension: Toward a New Economics. He can be reached at email@example.com.