The Public Plan as Political Play

by Peter Suderman

Is the public plan dead? It's not entirely clear. Yesterday on CNN, Kathleen Sebelius suggested that a public plan isn't essential to reform. And at a town hall meeting on Saturday, Obama said that it's "just one sliver" of the overhaul he has in mind. But as Marc Ambinder reports, some administration officials are now backing away from what Sebelius said.

Still, yesterday's comments took a lot of the wind out of the public option's sails. And that's bound to disappoint the public option's many liberal supporters. As Patrick pointed out, Rachel Maddow thinks that losing the public plan would mean wasting a lot of effort. Perhaps. But viewed another way, it also looks like a fairly smart political play.

How's that?

Marc also noted that, although Obama clearly supports a public plan, he's also viewed it as a "bargaining chip." By putting it forward in earnest, giving it major support, and then reluctantly withdrawing it (if that's what he chooses to do), Obama will be able to make a major concession without killing reform entirely.

More than that, the public plan has drawn fire away from other parts of the plan that might normally have received a lot of criticism from the Right -- the individual mandate in particular. Indeed, as Ramesh Ponnuru wrote last week, it's been somewhat surprising how little attention reform opponents have paid to other potentially controversial aspects of the plan:

It seems to me that those of us who oppose the Democrats’ health-care legislation in principle who believe, that is, that it takes our system of financing health care in the wrong direction rather than that it moves too fast should start concentrating less of our fire on the “public option” and more of it on the individual mandate.

...[T]he basic outline of Obamacare can survive ditching the public option. It can’t survive ditching the individual mandate. You can’t, for example, have a ban on insurers’ taking account of pre-existing conditions without such a mandate.

No doubt Obama would prefer to see a public plan included in reform. But he's also been consistent about hedging his support for it, refusing to say that it's a must-have. As he continues to play the difficult, delicate political game that health-care reform has become, it may turn out that the public plan's primary value has little to do with whether or not it's good policy -- and everything to do with its usefulness as a political play.