Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid today announced that the public option (Charles Schumer's "opt out" plan, in particular) will be contained in the bill he moves to the Senate floor. This is an absolute shock to the media, since they have been obsessing over only one bill out of a total of five that congressional committees have passed to date -- the one produced by Max Baucus' Senate Finance Committee. Baucus' bill (which took the longest to appear) is the only one of these five bills without a public option. But, in apparent widespread confusion as to how Congress actually works, the media has been pushing the "public option is dead" theme for so long, it's no wonder they're so astonished at today's news. Because it proves (yet again, I might add) that the media's credibility is really what should have been pronounced dead months ago, and not the public option.
A quick trip through Lexis/Nexis (searching on "public option is dead") proves this beyond any doubt. Republicans offered this up as a piece of "conventional wisdom," and the media swallowed the story hook, line, and sinker all summer long. While there were voices in the blogosphere's wilderness saying "there are bigger fights ahead, Baucus' committee is a minor skirmish," most of the mainstream media watched the hotheads yelling at town hall meetings, and took an enormous leap to reach the conclusion that the public option was deader than a doornail. Forgetting, I suppose, that a scattering of angry, vocal protesters are not who writes the actual legislation. Or something. At this point, it's hard to even fathom the depths of the media's distractibility on crucial issues facing our nation.
Here are just a few of the recurring instances of beating the particular "public option is dead" drum from the past few months (emphasis added by yours truly):
7/29/09 -- Fox News
MARTHA MACCULLUM: What we're hearing on the Senate side is that the public option is dead.
From the print media:
7/24/09 -- New York Daily News -- "Health Plan Stalls. Prez Concedes It May Not Get To Congress Till Fall"
Reid bent to reality as senators on the stalled Finance Committee met for hours hoping to clear the air, emerging to say their talks were "contentious."
Reform opponents cheered the delay, predicting it at least dooms the President's push for a government-run insurance option.
"I am very confident . . . that if Congress does not pass a health care bill with the public option before Labor Day, the public option is dead," conservative activist Rick Scott said in an e-mail to supporters.
Insiders say the delay would not land reform in the morgue. "Not fatal at all," said a Finance Committee aide.
Analysts agreed, but predicted the slowdown will prompt a barrage of attacks lasting through the summer.
That last sentence certainly appears prophetic in hindsight, I have to admit.
Kent Conrad began pushing his "co-op" plan pretty hard around this point, and with it served up more fodder for the "public option is dead" theme:
8/5/09 -- USA Today (with Reuters listed as source) -- "Health Co-ops Emerge As Weak Substitute"
Opposition in the Senate is so strong that some negotiators have concluded the public option is dead there. The co-op idea, championed by Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., arose as an alternative free of the "government" stigma to provide competition for private insurers.
Fox News, of course, pronounced the public option dead repeatedly:
8/16/09 -- Fox -- Fox News Sunday
CHRIS WALLACE: Senator Conrad, as a practical matter, especially given what Secretary Sebelius says, is the public option dead?
SENATOR KENT CONRAD: Well, there are not the votes in the United States Senate for the public option. That's why I was asked to come up with an alternative. And I want to just make a tweak to what you've referred to as the cooperative plan.
. . .
WALLACE: And real quickly, Senator Conrad, because I want to move on to the next fact check, would the president be better off just taking the public option off the table right now?
CONRAD: Look, the fact of the matter is there are not the votes in the United States Senate for the public option. There never have been. So to continue to chase that rabbit, I think, is just a wasted effort.
This line (complete with its "rabbit metaphor") was widely quoted for the next two weeks, which I'll get to in a minute. But later on in the same show, A.B. Stoddard from The Hill newspaper, reinforced Conrad's words, by explaining why the president should just announce to the world that the public option is dead:
A.B. STODDARD: I think there's time if he wants to be a strong president and come in even behind the scenes -- if he doesn't declare the public option dead in public, come out and, behind the scenes, start speaking to the liberal members and say, "I want a bipartisan bill by September 15th. I want a reasonable incremental bill that will pass, that will not kill us in the next two elections. You need to stay with me on this." He needs to exert himself.
The problem is if they miss that deadline, as Ceci mentioned, then the Democrats -- the liberal wing is going to pile on and say, "Let's just go without them. Let's do a bill without the Republicans. Let's use reconciliation, have a public plan." And President Obama knows that's not -- it's politically just too perilous.
But it wasn't just Fox. CNN repeated the "public option is dead" discussion quite a few times. Here is a snippet of one of these, with Joe Klein of Time magazine and Patricia Murphy of PoliticsDaily.com debating the importance of the town hall protesters. Klein shows a rare moment of "gosh, the media is the one who determines what is 'news' so don't act so amazed" -- which is seldom heard from the media pack when marveling at "what is news" without taking responsibility:
8/17/09 -- CNN
JOE KLEIN: They're turning out handfuls of people who scream very loud.
PATRICIA MURPHY: And they're making the news.
KLEIN: They're making the news because we're letting them make the news.
MURPHY: And it's working. And the public plan is off the table now.
KLEIN: Well, but the public plan was never going to be on the table.
Chris Matthews was an early proponent of the death of the public option, and has talked about it for months, both on his Hardball show and on his weekly Chris Matthews Show. An early example was Pat Buchanan saying "I think the public option's dead" on the Hardball that aired August 18, 2009. This show also amusingly had Matthews calling NBC's Chuck Todd "Chuckaroo" on the air, as well as Todd coming out with this frank admission (also rare for the media): "...we always say that the country has A.D.D., you know, and doesn't seem to remember what happened just five minutes ago."
Back on Fox, Dana Perino had this to say on Sean Hannity's show:
8/18/09 -- Fox News -- Sean Hannity
DANA PERINO: I think what this signaled this weekend is that the public option is dead. It's not coming back. ... They misread the American electorate. They absolutely misread on how seniors were going to feel about this. And they are walking down a road where they're going to not be able to unite the country on anything unless they can pull back.
On the show Inside Washington, they got into the "rabbit metaphor" from Kent Conrad's earlier statement. This led to an amusing mistranscription that I just had to include, because it's funny:
8/23/09 -- WJLA -- Inside Washington
After saying last weekend that the rabbit will probably be taken off the table, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius this week gave the little fellow a newly sun life.
Um, perhaps you meant to type "a new lease on life"? Heh heh. Sorry, when you spend all day reading transcripts, you take your childish humor where you can find it...
But the real thing worth pointing out from this show was Charles Krauthammer, a little later on, following the same metaphor down the rabbit hole. Or, as he would put it, the wabbit hole:
CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER: The wascally wabbit is dead. It doesn't have a chance. In the end, the liberals are bluffing. Mara Liasson of NPR put it, I think, correctly. There's no left wing Democrat who's going to lose a seat if the option is left out of the bill. There're a lot of moderate Democrats who will lose a seat if the public option is in the bill. And that will determine how it goes. There'll be no public option. There might be a co-op idea, which is a Trojan horse, which will be a substitute.
Wait a minute, I thought it was a rabbit... now it's a horse? I'm confused.
Back on Fox, Bill O'Reilly and Karl Rove were betting on the imminent death of the public option. While no terms were actually discussed, Rove actually took the "public option is not dead" side of the bet, since he probably knows how Congress actually works, rather than the fantastical way it has been constantly viewed by the media throughout this debate. O'Reilly starts by airing a clip of the two talking the previous week.
9/14/09 -- Fox News -- The O'Reilly Factor
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BILL O'REILLY: I think the public option is gone. He threw it right out the window. So liberals aren't going to like that. It's gone. I think...
KARL ROVE: Bill, I don't agree with you. I think tonight he had a tougher tone on it than before.
O'REILLY: No. NO.
ROVE: I hope you're right. I thought his tone tonight was very tough.
O'REILLY: No, you heard him say, look, the progressives -- this is just the way to get their -- he's going to throw that out.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O'REILLY: Well, yesterday, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LINDSEY GRAHAM: Well, I think the public option is dead. It's probably been dead a long time, because the public is very afraid. Eighty-five percent of the people with private health insurance like what they've got.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O'REILLY: Here now, FOX News analyst Karl Rove. I don't understand this. It looks like I may have been right.
ROVE: I hope you're right. With you and Lindsey Graham saying it's gone, it is Bill Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and new chairman of the Senate Health and Education and Labor Committee, Tom Harkin, saying...
O'REILLY: Olympia Snowe, the Republican senator from Maine.
ROVE: Forty -- 40/60, forty to sixty.
O'REILLY: But you know how much damage there will be if that gets in there.
O'REILLY: And so I...
ROVE: Which is why I'm hoping you're right.
O'REILLY: You're not going to bet me a lot of money.
ROVE: I will bet you.
O'REILLY: How much do you want to bet?
ROVE: Well, I'm not a gambler. I'm happy to make a modest bet with you. I hope you are right. Please.
O'REILLY: But you're still standing to your guns?
ROVE: Because look, it's a question of math. You have a huge Democrat majority in the House. And you have the speaker of the House.
O'REILLY: He that could get it done. One-termers.
ROVE: Sure. But you know what? If they got that done, that would be one term worth having from the perspective of a lot of progressives.
O'REILLY: I don't think Obama wants a one term.
ROVE: In the Senate Democrats, you've got people who are flaking out, because they're looking for a way to get a soft public option. That is to say, well, we're not for the public option.
O'REILLY: Yes, they'll work for guys...
ROVE: We are the trader or the co-opt.
O'REILLY: The big federal insurance apparatus isn't going to happen.
I said before we had all dodged a bullet because Tom Daschle had to withdraw from consideration for Secretary of Health and Human Resources. Here's why:
9/29/09 -- Bloomberg TC -- Peter Cook interviews Tom Daschle
PETER COOK: And right now, as you look at the votes in this committee so far, the underlying bill is basically intact, no major changes to it. If these public-option votes go down today, does that mean the public option's dead?
TOM DASCHLE: Well, it means that it's not dead, but that it's not necessarily -
COOK: Life support -
DASCHLE: Yes. It's probably on life support. It'll go to the Senate floor. There, they will have other votes. There may be other dynamics. There's another amendment on a public option that probably has a lot more possibility, and that is the so-called Snowe amendment, which is a trigger for a public option over the course of several years. If we fail to accomplish everything we set out to do, the trigger sets in, maybe in about five years.
. . .
DASCHLE: I think it's possible, but it's not very probable. My guess is, at the end of the day, Democrats are going to coalesce. They're going to come up with an agreement on something that doesn't make them all that enthusiastic but, in large measure, addresses all of the concerns in cost, access and quality that we've been talking about all year.
Back at CNN, Gloria Borger weighed in on the issue:
9/29/09 -- CNN -- Campbell Brown
CAMPBELL BROWN: After today's vote, is public option dead or alive?
GLORIA BORGER: I think it's pretty dead, Campbell. I think it's safe to say that right now it looks like it's a goner.
Alex Castellanos, over at The Situation Room on the same network, agreed, with an Hallowe'eny mental image for us all to enjoy:
9/29/09 -- CNN -- The Situation Room
ALEX CASTELLANOS: Look, the president and the Democratic Party, Wolf, for a long time have been very clear. They would like government-run health care. They can't get it now, so they will take what they call a public option, a step toward that. In the short term, the public option is dead. They don't have the votes in the Senate. It's like when you die your hair and your fingernails keep growing for a few days. Well, the public option... it will still keep growing for a few days, but it's dead. It's not going to happen.
The Wall Street Journal was also quite convinced:
9/30/09 -- Wall Street Journal -- Greg Hitt
Bipartisan vote in Senate Finance Committee defeats proposal for government-run health insurance plan to help those who cannot get affordable insurance; defeat suggests so-called public option is dead in Senate, though it clings to life in House; public option could be revived if Obama administration weighs in strongly; alternative could be 'trigger' option that takes effect only if other steps fail to expand coverage and lower costs
The Washington Times agreed (note: the number five is apparently a "large number" to the folks a the Times):
9/30/09 -- Washington Times -- "Public Option Rejected Twice By Senate Panel; Democrats Defect In Large Numbers, Complicating Reform"
In a long-awaited fight that pitted Democrats against one another, liberal lawmakers failed twice Tuesday to insert a government-run health insurance program into the emerging Senate health care reform bill but vowed that the battle for a public option is far from over.
Republicans immediately hailed the Senate Finance Committee showdown votes as proof that the public option was dead.
These obituaries came as recently as yesterday, in case you were wondering. But, tellingly, they're starting to confuse the "journalists" who believed the hype, because the storyline is beginning to change on them.
10/25/09 -- NBC -- Meet The Press
JOE SCARBOROUGH: Well, I, I can, I can tell you it's been very confusing. Headlines on Tuesday said public option's dead; headlines on Wednesday, public option's alive. Headline--headlines this morning, The New York Times, public option, dead. And Dan Balz, Washington Post, says public option alive. This is where we're at: Harry Reid this morning has 57 votes. He's got 57 votes for the opt-out, the state opt-out. The president, at the White House right now, wants to go with the trigger. Huffington Post this morning had, had, had an article and they've got some great insights on, on some other areas, about how liberals are angry because the Obama White House is moving toward the trigger. And, and what does a trigger do? A trigger says, "We're not going to have a public option unless health care--insurance companies don't step forward."
But I saved my favorite one for last, since it wins the award for best "Are you still beating your wife, Senator?" way of framing the question so it is only answerable one particular way. From last week's Chris Matthews Show, here is the host:
10/18/09 -- NBC -- Chris Matthews Show
CHRIS MATTHEWS: OK. Let's take a look at the bottom line. We asked The Matthews Meter, 12 of our regulars, do the Democratic leaders who are pushing the public option now really deep down know that it's dead, that it can't be part of a solution that gets 60 votes, 218 in the House? Our meter's got a canny bunch here. Look, seven say the leaders already know there's not going to be a public option, five say they honestly still believe they can win it and get it part of this package.
In other words, Chris is not really asking whether the public option is dead or not, but he's actually asking "Do Democrats know that the public option's dead?" He presents it as a fait accompli, leaving only the question of whether Democrats are too dense to see reality or not.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, the headline today: "Harry Reid Says Senate Bill Will Have Public Option" is being written (in various variations) across the media. Don't ask me how I know this, but "We, The Media, Got It Totally And Utterly Wrong For Months On End; Sorry About That" will likely not be the subheading to many of these stories.
Watching the media fall all over themselves to pretend the last three months never happened will be interesting, though. It's like watching some Medieval drama being played out, with that old inherently contradictory statement being shouted by the town crier:
"The public option is dead! Long live the public option!"
[Technical Note: When I typed that penultimate paragraph, somehow I typed "Mediaevil." Good thing for spell-checkers, eh? Wishing everyone a "newly sun life" for now....]
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com
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