Why the public option isn’t dead

WHY THE PUBLIC OPTION ISN’T DEAD…. This NYT piece is ostensibly about Democratic divisions over the details of health care reform — headline: “For Democrats, Cracks in a United Front” — which isn’t especially interesting. The article, however, actually raises some interesting angles.

Most notable is the new-found optimism on the left about the prospects for a more ambitious reform bill. It’s largely a foregone conclusion that the Senate Finance Committee will wrap up this upcoming week, approving a bill that generates no (or almost no) GOP support, but fails to meet liberals’ expectations. But as the legislation moves to the floor, progressive lawmakers and their allies “expect to be able to shape the final product more than they had hoped just weeks ago.”

What’s changed? Having the caucus return to 60 members doesn’t hurt, but the NYT‘s Jackie Calmes point to two other angles.

One is the failure of Senator Max Baucus of Montana, a more conservative Democrat who heads the Finance Committee, to get any Republicans to support his draft legislation, after months of trying. That doomed President Obama’s goal of bipartisan backing for a health care overhaul, and now leaves party liberals arguing for a distinctly Democratic health plan.

“One of the strongest arguments against a public option has been that the Republicans will never go for it,” [Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.)] said. “Well, the Baucus bill doesn’t have a public option, and they’re still not for it in any way, with the possible exception of Olympia Snowe,” a moderate Republican senator from Maine, who has not ruled out supporting the overhaul that Mr. Obama is seeking.

The second development that has encouraged liberals is recent polling, including some done for The New York Times and CBS News in the last week, that gives Democrats a clear edge over Republicans as the party favored to deal with health care issues. The same polls show significant support for a public option despite months of criticism from Republicans, who describe it as a government takeover of health insurance.

Congressional Democrats of all stripes have become more upbeat since returning to work after the August recess…. The sense that something will become law has only strengthened the resolve of liberals, inside the Congress and out, to fight with intensity as Democrats write the legislation this fall.

Like Greg Sargent, I found that Schumer quote of particular interest. Max Baucus bent over backwards to offer Republicans an insurance-industry-friendly bill, filled with concessions and ideas that Republicans had already embraced. Every single GOP senator balked anyway. I’d hoped it was obvious beforehand, but this apparently sent quite a signal to the Democratic caucus — there’s no point in watering down the bill to get bipartisan support if the minority is going to slap their hand away anyway.

I’m also glad to see the polls are having an effect, as they should. We’re talking about a provision that would save taxpayers money, lower the costs of reform, and enjoys strong support from the public — including Republicans. After months of constant whining about the perils of a “government takeover,” the public option enjoys broad approval across the country.

That’s not to say this is going to be easy going forward; just the opposite is true. But the landscape looks more favorable than it did as recently as a few weeks ago.