The inmates are running the asylum. Over the past few weeks, the Obama administration lost control of the debate over healthcare reform. In fact, the debate disappeared, replaced by what columnist Richard Cohen has called ‘political pornography.’ The rational has been overshadowed by the irrational, truth by deception. What remains a desperately needed overhaul of healthcare has been shouted down by right-wing extremists, both the elected and the unelected kind, who reference non-existent plots reminiscent of Nazi euthanasia and Kafkaesque bureaucratic hurdles to demonize a government that many of them are actually members of. Some of these opponents of healthcare reform believe the madness they spout, while some are shamelessly manipulating the gullible for political expediency. How effective is their clamoring? The centerpiece of any meaningful reform, an option to buy into publicly run health coverage, is now in danger. In a disturbing fit of rebranding, President Obama is no longer referring to ‘healthcare reform.’ Instead, he has been using the phrase ‘health insurance reform.’
The paradox of the Obama pullback on reform is that he, and this Congress, received a strong mandate from the voters last fall to tackle great and pressing issues such as healthcare reform. The implicit understanding in that mandate is that he, and the members of Congress, would pursue progressive legislation, and while Obama did promise to pursue bipartisanship, he is under no obligation to cave in to unreasonable demands by an opposition party that has been placed in the political wilderness by its own incompetence. Every time he and the Democrats have pulled back in the face of Republican opposition in this debate, the GOP has made clear that any bill, regardless of the content, is still too liberal for its members to vote for. Obama is responding more to the wishes of members of Congress who have no intention of voting for any Democratic healthcare reform bill rather than the wishes of his actual constituents. The administration is unwilling to rigorously test the wide majorities in Congress that the American people gave. Healthcare reform was never going to be easy. The obstacles in the way of reform have befuddled liberal-minded presidents for decades now, but this current administration, in allowing outright fabrications to influence policy, is beginning to drift towards political cowardice at an alarming speed.
If Congress passes, and the president signs, any healthcare reform bill that does not have a public option, that bill will be nothing less than a failure. Thankfully, a large portion of the Democratic caucus in the House has been very vocal the last two days on this issue. Multiple letters have been drafted and signed by dozens of House Democrats and sent to the president, stating flatly that any bill that comes before them without a public option will lose their support. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, while not being as forceful as others in the House, has said that any bill will have a public option included. Many Senators have also reiterated the importance of the public option, such as Russell Feingold, who said that ‘without a public option, I don’t see how we will bring real change to a system that has made good healthcare a privilege for those who can afford it.’
President Obama should heed the words of these Congressmen and Senators who continue to stress the importance of the public option. They represent the real debate on healthcare reform. They represent a majority of Americans. Right now, President Obama is reacting to liars and scoundrels, and their dupes, but not in a way that marginalizes their fringe positions. Rather, by floating the possibility of removing the public option, he is legitimizing them. If this country were meant to continue to feel the jackboot of radical right-wing ideology, Obama would not have been elected president.
Addendum, February 2016 — I wrote above that any healthcare bill without a public option would be a failure. Well, here we are, years later, and the Affordable Care Act was enacted without a public option. Has it been a failure? Lord, no. Despite the rhetoric from the right, and the deep flaws in the bill, millions of people, myself included, now have health insurance because of the ACA. It could be better, but predicting that it would be a failure without a public option was flat-out wrong. Mea culpa.