09/13/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The "Government Take-Over" Isn't About the Public Option

In his The Take blog in the Washington Post (8/12), Dan Balz writes that the vocal opposition to Obama on health care isn't really about health care as much as it is about the debate over the role of government. He's right. But Balz's proposed solution -- jettisoning the public option -- would do nothing to diminish the right-wing anti-government opposition. Such a move would simply take the legs out from under any progressive support for reform.

Balz is correct that extreme reaction to the health care proposal is really a rejection of the notion that government can help solve key problems in America. The election last fall was a strong repudiation of those who would limit the government's role in solving huge challenges facing the nation. President Obama's New Foundation program faces the same virulent reaction that FDR engendered with the New Deal.

No matter what the president proposes on health care, the right will loudly label it a "government take-over." Just as soon as the economic stimulus bill was introduced, the right-wing message machine began demonizing government-funded research on which medical treatments work the best. Every component of Democratic health reform plans is characterized as a government take-over: establish standard benefit packages for insurance plans, require individuals and businesses to contribute to coverage, set up an insurance marketplace, etc.

The public option became an early lightning rod because the health insurance industry started gunning for it the week after Election Day. Republicans quickly jumped in. For the industry, having to compete with an insurance plan that has a public mission and the clout to deliver good, affordable health care is a threat. They'd like reform to deliver a government mandate for everyone to buy insurance, giving them tens of millions of new, profitable customers without making them compete with a public health insurer.

But if the public option weren't part of the Obama/Democratic reform plan, the right would still be screaming about a "government take-over" as loudly as it is now. If you look at the Frank Luntz Republican message playbook, it doesn't discuss the public option or any other policies; it's a ready-made, anti-government message for any and every Democratic policy proposal. And the right-wing anger we're seeing now isn't directed at giving people a choice of a public health insurance plan. Instead, opponents have managed to turn a doctor's discussing a living will with a patient into euthanasia.

If scuttling the public option won't quiet the right, it will definitely quiet the left. And that would be disastrous to the prospects of Democrats passing legislation this fall. Giving people an alternative to the private health insurance industry is the one issue that highly motivates progressives. Over and over again at Health Care for America Now, it is what our tens of thousands of activists -- from grassroots community people to high-dollar Democratic donors -- want to talk about. For them it has become the measure of whether health reform is about real change or just a cosmetic lift to a broken system. Responding to those same voices, the four Democratic committees in Congress have passed legislation that includes a public option, and the President has consistently reaffirmed his support.

Maybe that's another reason that Republicans in Congress are so focused on killing the public option. The Republican strategy for health reform is the same as the insurance company strategy for paying big medical claims: delay and deny. If Republicans in the Senate succeed in killing the public option, they'll cause mass desertion from the progressive army that's powering the President's agenda for reform.

(also posted at the NOW! blog)