Skip to main content
ABC News
The Public Option Fight May Not Have Been Winnable

There’s been a little bit of revisionist history in the post-mortem over the public option. The fact is that progressives did very, very well to get to within a handful of votes in the Senate on a weak-ish public option — perhaps as close as one or two votes on the latest compromise, the Medicare buy-in.

Exhibit A: At least four Democratic Senators had declared relatively unambiguous opposition to the public option as early as mid-June, when the health care debate began in earnest:

Blanche LincolnJune 18th:

LITTLE ROCK — U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., says she prefers private insurance cooperatives to a government-run provider that would compete with the private sector in reforming the nation’s health care system.

Mary LandrieuJune 9th:

Count Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) as a “no” vote on the public insurance option.

“I am not open to a public option, however I will remain open to a compromise – a full compromise,” Landrieu told reporters Tuesday. “A public option is not something I support I don’t think its the right way to go.”

Joe LiebermanJune 14th:

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said this weekend that he opposes a public option plan for consumers in a healthcare reform plan to emerge from the Senate.

“I don’t favor a public option,” Lieberman told Bloomberg News in an interview broadcast this weekend. And I don’t favor a public option because I think there’s plenty of competition in the private insurance market.”

Ben NelsonApril 30th:

Sen. Ben Nelson said Thursday that he will oppose the creation of a government-run health insurance plan as part of a health care overhaul, contrary to the position held by many of his fellow Democrats.

Nelson, D-Neb., said he may try to assemble a coalition of like-minded centrists opposed to the creation of a public plan, as a counterweight to Democrats pushing for it. He said he does not believe a majority of the Senate supports the idea.

Exhibit B: As of August 12th, the number of clear yesses in favor of the public option stood only at about 43.

Exhibit C: On September 29th, the very robust Rockefeller public option was defeated 8-15 out of the Senate Finance Committee, with 5 of the 13 Democrats voting against, and the marginally robust Schumer public option was defeated by a vote of 10 to 13 moments later.

In other words, I don’t see the ConservaDems — with the possible and important exception of Joe Lieberman — constantly moving the goalposts on the public option or otherwise negotiating in bad faith. Rather, I see them as having staked out a firm stance and sticking to it, and the public option advocates always facing a consequently uphill battle.

Suppose the following scenario plays out when you’re trying to buy a used car:

Dealer: The price of the car is $2,000.
You: For that beat-up Honda Accord? I’ll give you $1,200.
Dealer: Nope, it’s $2,000.
You: How about $1,500?
Dealer: I’m going to stick with $2,000.
You: Will $1,700 get it done?
Dealer: My best and final offer is $2,000.
You: Give a guy a break! $1,875?
Dealer: $2,000.
You: $1,995 and a Slurpee coupon?
Dealer: Now we’re talking — step into my office.

Is that a negotiation in bad faith? Is the dealer moving the goalposts? No. He’s being very stubborn and very firm — but he’s also being very explicit about what he wants. It’s possible that you were an incompetent negotiator and that maybe if your first offer had come in a little lower, or a little higher, you could have gotten a better price. But more likely the dealer simply had more of the leverage and ultimately $2,000 is an acceptable price to you, even if it’s more than you were hoping to pay.

Progressives did just about everything in their power to try to get a decent public option into the bill. They threatened. They bargained. They complained. They organized. They persuaded. They begged. There was the opt-in, the opt-out, the trigger, the Medicare buy-in. There was no lack of initiative or creativity. And they actually had quite a bit of success: from 43 votes in August, they got up to perhaps as many as 48-52 for a strong-ish public option, and 57-59 for a weak-ish one. People like Kay Hagan, Tom Carper and Kent Conrad, to varying degrees, came on board.

But just because you perceive yourself as being in a negotiation with another party doesn’t entitle you to win that negotiation, or even to split things halfway. Sometimes your adversary doesn’t think there’s anything to negotiate at all. Sometimes they would in theory be willing to negotiate if you could find the right leverage point, but there’s nothing that fits the bill, for all your best efforts. Sometimes their first offer is pretty much as good as it’s going to get, and not merely a negotiating ploy.

At the end of the day, negotiations are about leverage, and in this case, the ConservaDems had almost all of it. Why?

Firstly, because a bill without a public option still does a world’s worth of good from a progressive standpoint, providing in excess of $100 billion per year in subsidies to the disadvantaged to help them procure health care.

Secondly, because the public option is considerably more popular in progressive districts than in ConservaDem ones.

Thirdly, because the health care bill has become fairly unpopular overall. Whereas for a moderate or liberal Democrat, a vote for health care is nevertheless a slam dunk, the more conservative Democrats have to weigh a nay vote that would really hurt their party nationally versus an aye vote that could potentially harm them personally.

Fourthly, because money talks in politics, and corporate campaign donations tend to push policy toward the center-right, and the ConservaDems tend to be especially reliant on corporate contributions.

Fifthly, because progressives do not have a history of behaving “irrationally”, and so attempts to refute the above logic are not credible.

Sixthly, because the threat to use reconciliation is only minimally credible — it could be done, but the bill that emerged could easily be worse from a progressive standpoint than a bill passed under regular order without a public option, and the attendant political fallout would be damaging to all Democrats.

This is a very difficult set of circumstances to overcome. Perhaps not impossible — if Joe Lieberman weren’t such a prick, for instance, maybe it could have been done. But very, very tough. I see neither a strategic failure on behalf of progressives, nor “enabling” behavior on behalf of moderates**, nor bad faith on behalf of conservatives. Nothing was yanked away from progressives — they set a very high bar, worked their butts off, and just barely failed to clear it.

** The one possible exception — the White House — which was pretty darn popular when this debate began and wasn’t willing to gamble much of its political capital.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.