Not long ago, the most prominent supporters of the public option were touting it as essential for health care reform. Now, suddenly, it's incidental.
In fact, many who were lauding a public option as the key to a better health care future are now condemning just about anyone who insists that the absence of a public option makes the current bill unworthy of support.
Consider this statement: "If I were a senator, I would not vote for the current health care bill. Any measure that expands private insurers' monopoly over health care and transfers millions of taxpayer dollars to private corporations is not real health care reform."
That statement is as true today as it was when Howard Dean, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, made it three months ago in a Washington Post op-ed. But now, a concerted political blitz is depicting anyone who takes such a position as a menace to "real health care reform."
After devoting vast amounts of time, money, energy and political capital to banging the drum for the public option as absolutely vital during 2009 and through this winter, countless liberal organizations and prominent Democrats in Congress have made a short-order shift.
You are now to understand that the public option isn't essential -- it's expendable. And all of a sudden, people who assert that a public option is a minimal requirement for meaningful health care reform are no longer principled -- they're pernicious.
This dynamic goes way beyond the routine malleability of political positions. While the whips crack on Capitol Hill, what we're seeing is a stampede of herd doublethink.
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I continue to believe that guaranteed health care -- a.k.a. single-payer or enhanced Medicare for all -- is the only way to solve this country's enormous health care crisis. But early last year, before the public option shrank and shrank some more and then disappeared under the bus of the Obama administration, it appeared to possibly be a significant step forward.
But the White House, even while claiming to want a public option, was cutting deals with the pharmaceutical and hospital industries while ditching the public option. For those who doubt that the administration engaged in double-dealing to such an extent, I recommend the March 16 article by Huffington Post writer Miles Mogulescu, "NY Times Reporter Confirms Obama Made Deal to Kill Public Option."
A postscript from Mogulescu voices a broader outlook. I'll quote a couple of paragraphs here:
Whenever I write blogs which are critical of Obama and Congressional Democrats for making corporatist deals, I get numerous comments from people who believe they are progressive but say they will never vote for Obama or Democrats again, that they will stay home at the next election, or that they will vote for small third parties who have no chance of winning. It's not my intent to encourage those views. Do people making these comments really think bringing Republicans back to power would make things better? . . .
Progressives need to have a sophisticated and nuanced relationship with elected Democrats. After the 2008 elections, too many progressive organizations demobilized believing their job was simply to take orders from the White House to support Obama's agenda, whatever it was. That was a mistake. It's equally a mistake for progressives to overreact in the opposite direction and think they can abandon electoral politics and do nothing to prevent the Republicans from regaining power. What's needed is a powerful grassroots progressive movement to force elected officials to do the right thing more often and to counter-balance the power of big money in politics. The periods of progressive change in American politics, like the Progressive Era, The New Deal, and the Great Society, have come when strong progressive movements have forced elites and elected officials to enact somewhat progressive legislation.
The dynamic now in full force on Capitol Hill was aptly described by Dean in his Post op-ed midway through December: "In Washington, when major bills near final passage, an inside-the-Beltway mentality takes hold. Any bill becomes a victory. Clear thinking is thrown out the window for political calculus. In the heat of battle, decisions are being made that set an irreversible course for how future health reform is done. The result is legislation that has been crafted to get votes, not to reform health care."
A week after Dean's article, the Senate approved the health care bill that is now on track to be "deemed" by the House -- with the avid support of Dean and numerous other public-option enthusiasts, and also for that matter with the support of Rep. John Conyers and many other single-payer enthusiasts (including, as of Wednesday, Rep. Dennis Kucinich).
The quality of the Senate health care legislation hasn't improved in the three months since Dean condemned it. What has gone over the top is the cacophony of voices and pressures to tout doublethink as virtuous pragmatism.
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But there are big problems with skipping lightly past the absence of a public option in the current bill. And none is bigger than the reality of the individual mandate in the legislation.
It's remarkable and sadly revealing that boosters of the bill have scarcely mentioned -- much less publicly come to terms with -- the dire implications of a nearly enacted law that requires people to have health insurance and offers no option other than further enriching the private insurance industry.
Last year, when the subject came up, progressive supporters of the White House's general approach were quick to offer assurances that a public option would mitigate the unpleasant aspects of mandated coverage. After all, the story went, people could select a nonprofit government-run entity for insurance coverage rather than being forced to choose between corporate insurance policies.
But now, if the pending bill becomes law, people will be forced to choose between corporate insurance policies.
Meanwhile, all the hype about how 30 million more Americans "will be covered" fails to deal with the quality and cost of their purported coverage, much less how much real access to health care will actually result.
For many, the available coverage would be bottom-of-the-barrel quality -- and even then, given thin personal finances, would cause added strains to pay for premiums. In the absence of public-option health insurance run for purposes other than maximizing profits, the built-in unfairness of an individual mandate becomes magnified.
What's more, the very concept of health care as a human right will be fundamentally undermined by placing the health-insurance burden on individuals. Many who receive government subsidies will routinely struggle to make ends meet, while making do with shoddy health plans as part of a new configuration of health care apartheid. And, inevitably, the extent of government subsidies will be vulnerable to attacks from politicians eager to cut "entitlements."
On a political level, the mandate provision is a massive gift to the Republican Party, all set to keep on giving to the right wing for many years. With a highly intrusive requirement that personal funds and government subsidies be paid to private corporations, the law would further empower right-wing populists who want to pose as foes of government "elites" bent on enriching Wall Street.
With this turn of the "health care reform" screw, the Democratic Party will be cast -- with strong evidence -- as a powerful tool of corporate America. But the Democrats on Capitol Hill and the organizations eagerly whipping for passage are determined to celebrate the enactment of something called "health care reform."
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"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."
"The question is," Alice replied, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," Humpty Dumpty responded, "which is to be master -- that's all."
Many well-informed and insightful people are now hoping that the current health care bill will become law and then lead to something better. But few backers want to dwell on its requirement that everyone get health coverage from the private insurance industry -- a stunning, deeply structural transfer of humongous power and wealth that would greatly boost the leverage of an already autocratic corporate state.