The Public Option as Symbol

By / 12.2.2009

In recent days, there seems to have been a shift in the progressive community over the question of whether the public option, in its current state, is still worth fighting for. Some on the militantly pro-public-option left aren’t responding well to the weakening front.

Over at Hullabaloo, the influential Digby gives the game away. She cites Ezra Klein, who wrote today:

Having something called a public option is not, in the end analysis, as important as achieving the goals of the public option, and at this point, the policy itself is getting so watered down that it might be worth attempting to achieve its goals in a more straightforward fashion.

But Digby is having none of that:

Ezra believes that if the votes aren’t there for a decent public option then the horse trading should be around getting something good in return for giving up the public option rather than negotiating the terms of the public option. That would make sense if the public option were just another feature of the health care bill. But it is not. It is the central demand of the liberal base of the Democratic Party in this rube goldberg health care plan and has long since gone way beyond a policy to become a symbol.

Perhaps that is wrong on policy grounds. People will argue about that forever. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is no longer a matter of policy but rather a matter of political power. And to that extent it cannot be “bargained away” for something like better subsidies, even if it made sense. “Bargaining away” the Public Option is also the bargaining away of liberal influence and strength.


Again, as a matter of policy I don’t know that the public option actually means much anymore. But as a matter of politics, it’s very important.

Let the boldness – and the destructiveness – of that declaration sink in. On the most important progressive policy achievement in a generation, Digby says forget the policy – it’s the symbolism that matters.

Digby argues that the implications of the public option extend far beyond health care, that “powerful people” are “desperate that the liberals are not seen to win this battle.” Funny, because I thought the way that progressives win this battle is by making health care accessible and affordable to millions of Americans who currently don’t have it. According to some very smart people, the public option is playing a steadily diminishing role in achieving that goal. But don’t tell that to Digby, whose position now boils down to: Why bother with policy advances when we can have symbolic victories (or, heck, defeats)?

From the start, PPI has argued that the fixation on the public option has been distracting us from the more important conversation we could be having about making the exchanges more robust. Paul Starr, in an op-ed for the New York Times on Monday, said as much in a column titled “Fighting the Wrong Health Care Battle”:

[G]iving the exchanges the necessary authority to regulate private insurers could solve many of the problems that motivated the public option in the first place. Strengthening that authority and accelerating the timetable for reform are what liberals in Congress should be looking for in a deal.

But Starr is, of course, commenting on policy. For Digby, that’s no longer what the health care debate is about.