04/26/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Is The Public Option Back From The Dead? (No)

Tomorrow's televised health care summit is both a product and a potential source of renewed momentum behind the larger health care reform effort. But one wonders: what will become of the public option? Are its chances similarly revived or is it as dead as it ever was?

Certainly, the larger perception is that the public option has been suddenly resurrected. There are a lot of reasons to believe this. Recent polling, for example, has helped to remind the media that the public option is still wildly popular. But what's spurring the hopes of public option supporters turns out to be emerging political realities. This is ironic, given the fact that, months ago, emerging political realities were what led to its suspected demise.

Back during the winter wrangling over the health care reform bill in the Senate, the public option died because the Senate Democrats couldn't muster the party discipline required to ensure its survival. Nancy Pelosi was able to get the public option through passage in the House, but the Senate ultimately had to cater to the whims of people like Joe Lieberman -- who was against almost anything that came close to resembling the public option, including a public option trigger and the "opt-out public option." Lieberman even came out against the Medicare buy-in, which was intended as a consolation prize to progressive, public-option supporters. (Lieberman probably would have supported it if that support would have rankled more Democrats.)

This was bad news for the public option, but at the time that was the political reality and that was the price of getting 60 votes.

But then Scott Brown was elected to the United States Senate, and the price of those 60 votes became unaffordable at any price. And the Democratic Congressional leadership started flirting with the idea of having the House pass the Senate bill as was, send it all to Obama's desk for signage and then perform various "fixes" to the reform through reconciliation.

That's when public option supporters reasoned: if reconciliation is being considered at all, it doesn't make any sense to worry about getting 60 votes in the Senate. What could be obtained with 50? Well, the public option could be obtained, maybe! And so senators began signing on to the strategy of getting the public what it wanted by whatever means necessary.

And so, hope began to spring anew. And if the next chapters of this story were written by Aaron Sorkin, his version of President Obama would stride out of the health care summit and tell Congressional Democrats, "Well, we gave the GOP a chance to play ball. Since we're not getting a single vote from them, let's give the American people the public option they're clamoring for by ramming it through in reconciliation. Then we'll spend the rest of the election year daring the GOP to take it away." (He'd probably then take a perplexing trip via limousine from the White House to the State Department by way of the National Cathedral, all soundtracked to a Dire Straits song, but I'll forgive Sorkin's loose grasp of Washington, DC geography.)

But unfortunately, the Obama we have is not the fictional creation he could be, and he does not "ram" things -- he "Rahms" things. Here is how that works:

1. February 22, 2003: Robert Gibbs: "I think they've asked for a vote on the floor of the Senate and that's certainly up to those who manage those amendments and up to Leader Reid." SUBTEXT: "Why don't you check in with what key-vote holder Senator Jay 'I will not relent on the public option' Rockefeller has to say about this?"

2. February 22, 2003: Key vote-holder Senator Rockefeller immediately challenges the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of the word "relent": "I'm probably not going to vote for that, although I'm strongly for the public option, because I think it creates, at a time when we really need as much bipartisan[ship] ... as possible. "

3. February 23, 2003: Robert Gibbs: "We have seen obviously that though there are some that are supportive of this, there isn't enough political support in a majority to get this through."

In other words, the White House is behind whatever Harry Reid can do, but since he can't do it, we're not behind it.

And just as a trap has been set for the Congressional GOP, this is the trap that's been laid for public option supporters. Here's Glenn Greenwald, explaining it further:

In other words, Rockefeller was willing to be a righteous champion for the public option as long as it had no chance of passing (sadly, we just can't do it, because although it has 50 votes in favor, it doesn't have 60). But now that Democrats are strongly considering the reconciliation process -- which will allow passage with only 50 rather than 60 votes and thus enable them to enact a public option -- Rockefeller is suddenly "inclined to oppose it" because he doesn't "think the timing of it is very good" and it's "too partisan." What strange excuses for someone to make with regard to a provision that he claimed, a mere five months ago (when he knew it couldn't pass), was such a moral and policy imperative that he "would not relent" in ensuring its enactment.

The Obama White House did the same thing. As I wrote back in August, the evidence was clear that while the President was publicly claiming that he supported the public option, the White House, in private, was doing everything possible to ensure its exclusion from the final bill (in order not to alienate the health insurance industry by providing competition for it). Yesterday, Obama -- while having his aides signal that they would use reconciliation if necessary -- finally unveiled his first-ever health care plan as President, and guess what it did not include? The public option, which he spent all year insisting that he favored oh-so-much but sadly could not get enacted: Gosh, I really want the public option, but we just don't have 60 votes for it; what can I do?. As I documented in my contribution to the NYT forum yesterday, now that there's a 50-vote mechanism to pass it, his own proposed bill suddenly excludes it.

This is what the Democratic Party does; it's who they are. They're willing to feign support for anything their voters want just as long as there's no chance that they can pass it.

Glenn has much more. You should read it all.

At any rate, public option proponents should keep their expectations low and their enthusiasm curbed. And, hey, while we're on the subject of enthusiasm, what do you get when you combine historically high Democratic majorities with the inability of those majorities to pass the public option that's insanely popular with their constituents? You get a party that will be going down to epic defeat in the 2010 election year!

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