Some commentators think Ted Kennedy's passing can reignite President Obama's health care bill. But I think it is likely to fail unless the President begins to defend the democratic principles undergirding the term "public option."What he and the Democrats need to do now, in Kennedy's honor, is tell the American public what it means to speak about them. About the public -- whether in the term "the public good" or "the public square" or the "American re-public" or, yes, in the phrase a "public option" in health care.
With little resistance, the American public and the American President have allowed the term public to be hijacked and turned into a dirty word. In the hands of the hijackers, public is about "them" or "it." It's about bureaucratic bullies trying to do in granny, or about fascist thugs trying to take away our freedom of choice. It's about socialism -- a command economy corporatist state taking health care decisions away from doctors and patients. It's about closet communists who want to put Stalin in charge of emergency room triage.
Well it isn't, and I wish President Obama was out front saying so. Because the public, folks, isn't them, it's us. It's "we the people," it's neighbors united to take care of one another, it's citizens doing together that they can't do alone.
The public square is our common ground. That's why in England they call it "the commons," the shared turf where in a democracy we stand together to overcome what keeps us apart and do together those public things (res-publica) that make us a republic.
Once we allow the word public to be vilified, however, then everything associated with it becomes pejorative. Like paying taxes. See, taxes is how we pool our money to do things in common that can't be done alone. Like building roads or educating the young or fighting wars or taking care of the poor and the sick and those with handicaps. Taxes are the common allowance we give ourselves as a national family so we can pay for the things that make us a family and keep us a family.
The attack on the term public is really an attack on democracy, on citizenship, on our efforts to come together under the banner of we the people to protect our liberties and secure our property and ensure our safety. Because centuries ago we figured out you can't do those things alone, one by one, even if you are strong. Behind the abstract term public stand your neighbors, your fellow citizens, your partners in common pursuits across the land.
Those who attack the public then are attacking you and me insofar as we want to think of ourselves as us. And in health care, us is critical, since the public health is at stake and only a public element can assure us a fair, efficient and cost-effective system.
It's really quite simple: the public option in health care is the public good in health care; and health care constitutes the core meaning of the public good. So let's out those who assail the term public: they are not protecting liberty, they are undermining the common goods and democratic institutions by which liberty is established and preserved.