09/03/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How To Argue For A Public Option On Health Insurance

The situation facing supporters of the public option going into this crucial month was made hilariously clear in this doozy of an anecdote from a recent Paul Krugman column. It seems that, at a recent town hall meeting in South Carolina, a man stood up and told Representative Bob Inglis to "keep your government hands off my Medicare."

OK, not knowing that Medicare is a government program is an extreme case but it highlights the ignorance factor on this issue -- which is huge. I count almost everyone among the (relatively) ignorant, by the way, which points to the reason Republicans are finding it so easy to shill for their corporate masters on health care. The complexity factor -- which is also huge. Only a few utter wonks have their arms around this sprawling monster. Which leaves us with:

High complexity + widespread ignorance = easy to scare.

That's the formula opponents of reform are deploying and, as Krugman's anecdote shows, you can scare people out of their wits, literally, with slogans about "government takeover." But the same anecdote points to what supporters of the public option most need, given the complexity -- a clear line of argument. That line of argument is rooted in the fact that the vast majority of Americans think Medicare is great. Ditto, Social Security.

So here's the way to go: in whatever public setting -- town hall meeting, around a picnic table -- whenever critics of reform start up about government bureaucracies coming between you and your doctor ask how they feel about Medicare. If they say, Medicare is fine then say, well, what's the difference? But if you are debating, as you likely will be, an ideological opponent of the public option then the chances are they won't actually like Medicare -- but won't want to admit that in front of people they are trying to convince. If they are caught in this bind, go on to ask if they supported W's effort to privatize Social Security. Chances are, they did.

The key is to keep the spotlight on them. No squirming out of it -- no "that's not the issue" or "Medicare is a done deal, we all accept it," none of that wiggling. Force the ideological confession. That will sway a lot of pragmatic citizens trying to make up their minds about a public option on grounds of workability.

Then there is this follow-up. Opponents of the public option like to say that government programs are wasteful and inefficient compared to private enterprise. They also like to say that the public option will drive private enterprises out of business and "limit your choices." Well, which is it? It can't be both....