MAYBE WE SHOULD CALL IT THE ‘FREE PONY OPTION’…. It’s nearly September, and the most contentious aspect of the health care reform debate is still the public option. The debate might be more productive if the public had a clue what the public option is.

A new survey by Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates for the AARP reveals widespread uncertainty about the nature of the “public option” — a government-run health insurance policy that would be offered along with private policies in the newly-created health insurance exchanges. Just 37 percent of the poll’s respondents correctly identified the public option from a list of three choices provided to them….

It is tempting to attribute these results to attempts by conservatives to blur the distinctions of the health care debate. And surely that is part of the story. But it may not be all that much of it. Democrats were more likely than Republicans to correctly identify the public option in this poll, but not by all that wide a margin — 41 percent versus 34 percent. Meanwhile, 35 percent of Republicans thought the public option refers to “creating a national healthcare system like they have in Great Britain” — but so did 23 percent of Democrats.

The poll specifically asked, “When politicians talk about including a ‘public option’ in healthcare reform, what do you think they mean?” Regardless of whether the respondents actually liked the idea or not, this simply sought to measure public understanding. The results found that just 37% realized that a public option would create a government-funded alternative to compete with private insurers; 26% thought a public option would create a British-style system; 13% thought a public option would create network of co-ops, and 23% simply had no idea.

As Nate Silver explained, if poll respondents had simply guessed at random, the percentage of those who got the question right wouldn’t have been much different.

Josh Marshall added, “[T]he fact that ‘public option’ is so un-descriptive and opaque has only made it easier for Republicans to portray it as some sort of program for mass euthanasia. So I’m not sure what there is to say here or do but laugh because the only other thing to do is cry.”

Well, one other alternative is to start calling the public option something else. I always thought it was rather simple and descriptive, but what do I know. At this point, perhaps it’s better to emphasize its qualities? Call it the “competition option” or the “public choice option”?

Or perhaps just go straight for the emotional appeal and call it the “free pony option.” People love ponies.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.