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A Few Final Thoughts on the Ublicpay Optionway

In his press conference today, Robert Gibbs asserted that “there isn’t enough political support in the majority” to get a public option through the Congress. This follows on the heels of a comment by Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, once a strong supporter of the public option, that he wouldn’t support inserting one via reconciliation because it “cannot” and “will not” pass.

Obviously, the logic embodied by Gibbs and Rockefeller is a bit circular. When a Senator says…

This bill doesn’t have the votes … so I’m not voting for it!

…what they usually really mean is that

I’m not voting for for this bill … so it doesn’t have the votes!

Still, there’s also this bit of conventional wisdom that the Democrats almost had 60 votes for the public option before, so surely they must have 50 now. This too is fairly specious, as it’s not clear how many votes the Democrats really did have for a public option in the first place. The compromise that Joe Lieberman scuttled included a Medicare buy-in, not a public option per se, to which there appeared to be at least several objections. Moreover, as I’ve written about before, 5 of 13 Democrats voted against the robust, Rockefeller-type public option in committee, and 3 of 13 voted against the Schumer “level playing field” public option. In August, a whip count on the public option showed only 43 firm yes votes, one of which was Senator Kennedy. Last month, Jane Hamsher claimed to have found 51 votes for a public option, but that included three Senators (Byrd, Baucus and Warner) who made ambiguous or non-germane statements that Hamsher optimistically counted as yesses, and a couple more supposed yes votes who actually voted against one or both versions of the public option in committee.

And these totals reflected how Senators claim they would have voted if the public option were considered under regular order — not under reconciliation, which is the process in play now. You might have to subtract some additional votes from among those Senators who are either opposed using reconciliation for health care in general, or opposed to including a public option in a reconciliation package specifically.

What’s reasonably clear is that the Democrats were quite a ways away from having 50 firm commitments to the public option. How close they could have gotten if Obama and Harry Reid had done everything in their power to whip the votes for it, we don’t know. Instead, it’s been pretty obvious, from the reporting of people like Ezra Klein and Jonathan Cohn, that the White House regarded the latest reincarnation of public option as a nuisance that they hoped would go away.

But frankly, I think the White House is right on the politics of this. Yes, as public option proponents are fond of pointing out, the measure polls well in the isolate. But that’s true of a lot of the individual components of the bill — and the public option is not one of the most popular components, nor one of the ones that ordinary voters consider to be the most “important”. The overall package fares poorly not because of concerns about the presence or absence of certain individual measures, but because people are exhausted and turned off by the process and have vague and ill-informed concerns about what the bill would do.

Does the public option, for instance, make it easier for opponents of the bill to perpetuate the perception that the bill represents a “government takeover” — which certainly does weigh down its polling? Probably at the margins, but that in and of itself almost certainly wouldn’t be a reason to reject a sound and popular piece of policy. On the other hand, in the post-Massachusetts environment, inserting a public option would smack of partisanship and backroom dealing — and trigger a nasty floor fight about its germaneness under reconciliation rules. Voters may not care as much as they claim to about bipartisanship, but they do care about broken promises — and if the Democrats insert a public option after Obama has gone through all of this rigmarole to demonstrate that he’s soliciting Republican input, it’s going to look like a flip-flop. I suspect the near-term politics of including a public option in a reconciliation bill are a net negative, although it’s hard to know for sure.

Perhaps the White House could have taken a different approach after Massachusetts and embraced populism rather than bipartisanship. In that case, the framing would have been that they were soliciting input from all parties on the health care bill, and the bill that they’d endorse might include quite a few changes from the House and Senate versions — not just a public option, but also things like drug re-importation and tort reform, which also poll well and also had been taken off the table before. This is a fairly seductive idea — although bear in mind, again, that the reason for the bill’s unpopularity have nothing to do with its individual components. Instead, rather, it polls as considerably less than the sum of its parts — and it’s not clear that changing the parts would have made all that much difference.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.