“Public Option: This Is How It’s Supposed To Work”
October 27, 2009, 4:00am

By Bill Scher – OurFuture.org

Today, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced he would submit a health care reform bill with a national public option that states could choose not to join.

This is how democracy is supposed to work. The highest ranking member of Senate was able to hear the will of America’s progressive majority over the din of the insurance lobby and the right-wing noise machine, and was responsive to the majority.

But that’s mere idealism. From a practical standpoint, this is how the modern progressive movement is supposed to work.

In 1993, there was no significant progressive movement putting positive pressure on the Clinton Administration. Many naively assumed having a Democratic president and Congress was enough, the hard work was done, and we could kick back with a Crystal Pepsi and let democracy work its magic.

We learned the conservative minority had many tricks up its sleeve, and was able to smear and fear to death any attempt at major progressive reform.

The election of a uniquely compelling figure in President Barack Obama threatened to bring back some of that complacency. A false notion persists in some corners that the President should be able “ram through” any legislation he likes.

But Obama himself has always stressed that real change is too hard to be accomplished by one person, even the President. Without a progressive movement pushing good ideas, debunking conservative information and countering special interest pressure, any attempt at reform will suffer the right-wing meat grinder, spooking even the biggest congressional majority from acting.

Over the last several years, the infrastructure of a modern progressive movement has been falling into place. There may be plenty of kinks to work out, but the movement has been making its mark.

As Roger Hickey explained in his recent post, beginning nearly three years ago, Campaign for America’s Future played a significant role in adopting the good idea of a public option from Prof. Jacob Hacker and helped put together the broad-based Health Care for America Now! coalition to educate and rally the public around it.

That was enough to get the idea embraced by the top Democratic presidential candidates in 2008, as well as many congressional candidates.

Then in 2009, as the legislative debate unfolded in the traditional media, leading liberal bloggers and cable TV commentators were able to put a hot spotlight on the idea, largely because it was a single idea that was easy to grasp but powerful enough to be fundamental to the debate. Grassroots energy was well channeled, not shattered on the shoals of opaque wonkiness.

(Contrast the health care experience with the climate debate, and to a lesser extent the financial reform debate, two areas where we lack a singular policy goal to hold up to the grassroots as a main target of activism.)

Bloggers also kept the grassroots fire stoked throughout the course of debate, countering the potential momentum killers from the paper-thin analysis of the pundits or the rampant lies by the lobbyist-backed Tea Party outbursts.

The building grassroots pressure buoyed the attempts by Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Chuck Schumer to overcome the naysaying from fellow Democrats Sen. Max Baucus and Kent Conrad.

Both repeatedly asserted, without producing evidence, that it was impossible to get a version of the public option passed in the Senate … regardless of what the people actually want. Yet the progressive movement amplified the sentiment found in poll after poll, letting Senators know that the idea was not just popular, but also had an intense constituency that would remember on Election Day if their representatives failed to execute the public will.

This is more than just brute democracy however. The main reason folks got behind the public option in the first place is that it is a good policy idea that could withstand right-wing attack, not that it is a symbolic prize for blind ideologues.

As conservatives tried to claim people would be forced into a fascist government takeover, progressives calmly noted the public option would simply offer an affordable choice in addition to private plans. As right-leaning Democrats wailed about the deficit, progressives stressed the public option was a money saver.

When crunch time came, and Senators began to realize all the other compromising done to appease right-leaning Democrats and special interest lobbyists risked making reform unaffordable to many working households, the merits of the public option shined even brighter.

But those merits would not have been heard without a progressive megaphone.

We have pushed the limits of Establishment debate, buried the right-wing lies and gave people a stronger voice in their democracy.

That’s how it’s supposed to work.

And it can work again, and again, and again.