Is the public option making a comeback?
Sen. Michael Bennett's effort to revive the public option in the reconciliation process is gaining steam, with almost 20 senators signing on to the idea. Among them are Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Schumer, who are not, shall we say, possessed of a whimsical or quixotic temperament.
Of course, you don't need almost 20 senators. You need 51, or more. And complicating that project is that the question here is not simply "public option: yes or no?" It's whether you want to jam a public option into a bill that Senate Democrats already passed without a public option. Not only are you throwing out any hope of appearing even slightly bipartisan, but you're also increasing internal dissension and adding unpredictability into a process that's collapsed into chaos already.
But there's an upside, and it's not just that the public option is good policy. The public option is also popular policy. Popular with the country in general, and popular among liberals in particular. The Democratic base is disgusted by the fecklessness of their representatives and depressed about the compromises that have gone into this bill.
Adding the public option into the legislation would give them something to fight for, and something to be excited about. If you believe, as most people do, that midterm elections are largely about base mobilization, and that Scott Brown's victory was in part assured by demoralized Democrats who didn't feel much affection for either Martha Coakley or the Democrats in Washington, this may be the party's last, best hope to give its passionate supporters the win that would reinvigorate them for 2010. "I don't think that was the original strategy behind signing this letter," one Senate aide told me. "But that may be the strategy we fall backwards into."
For all that, I'd still bet against the public option. For one thing, there's sharp resistance to this idea in the White House. The administration has just spent weeks rebranding itself as a bipartisan outpost in a sea of bickering hacks. Resuscitating the most controversial element of the bill and running it through reconciliation looks less like reaching out and more like delivering a hard left cross to the opposition.
One way or another, however, Senate Democrats and the White House need to choose their path and communicate it clearly. If Democrats want to use the public option to reinvigorate their base and attack the insurers and push this bill over the finish line in a final blaze of populist fury, more power to them. If they decide that the process is fragile and Americans want bipartisanship and this is a bad time to introduce uncertainty into chaos, that makes sense, too.
But it would be murder to leave the public option hanging in the middle of the process with too few votes to pass, too many supporters to kill, and enough bitter controversy that Republicans can just hammer away at Democrats forever and ever and ever. A zombie public option debate could well drag health-care reform into the grave as well.
Photo credit: By Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press