Death of a Public Plan? Or: The Problem With the Revenge-Against-the-Morons Strategy


There's still a chance that health reform could pass with a public plan. But, despite the muffled squeaks of "I'm not dead yet!", the liberal commentariat seems ready to toss their beloved government-run insurance plan onto the death wagon with the rest of the corpses that have succumbed to the plague of politics. 

In Salon, Thomas Schaller asks "what went wrong?" and suggests that, horror of horrors, Obama might have negotiated the public option away because of politics. Paul Krugman is claiming that the public option was killed by Washington's zombie Reaganism (which I desperately hope to someday find as a plot element in a Michael Moore/George Romero crossover film). Matt Yglesias says that criticisms of the reformers' strategy miss the point, which is that lots of liberal presidents have tried and failed before, and thus what we really need to understand is that health-care reform, like the final round in Guitar Hero, is just really stinkin' hard. 

Yglesias lays part of the blame on the Senate, which seems like the sort of "problem" that's not likely to be fixed any time soon. But he's right about the fundamental difficulty of these sorts of reforms. And if liberals want to take from all this the lesson that, for liberal presidents, attempting health-care reform is like doing the drink-a-gallon-of-milk-in-an-hour challenge—endlessly tempting, but equally guaranteed to end in a mess—that's fine by me. But I think it's more likely that the view expressed in the Guardian by Michael Tomasky will prevail: Sure, major reforms are hard, but that just means that progressives need to fight harder, even if swallowing a public-planless bill ends up less savory than three-day-old Taco Bell: 

A health bill will likely have a very weak public option or it won't have one at all. But liberals will have to battle for that bill as if it's life and death (which in fact it will be for thousands of Americans), because its defeat would constitute a historic victory for the birthers and the gun-toters and the Hitler analogists.


So we've moved from the moral case to the fiscal case to the "the-other-side-is-made-up-of-crazed-and-despicable-idiots" case. Republicans don't deserve any sympathy for their numerous distortions, exaggerations, and forays into hysterical nonsense. But Tomasky's revenge-against-the-morons strategy seems like an awfully convenient way of both avoiding addressing the substantive problems with liberal reform and ignoring the significant role moderate Democrats have played in making reform difficult. And it reveals, I think, a bigger—and ongoing—problem for a lot of diehard liberal activists currently seeking reform: As satisfying as rallying against the other side's lunacy might be to the left's feisty base, it's not much of an outreach strategy.

Read Reason's health-care archive here.