The Short, Happy Life of the Public Option

by Conor Clarke

There's an old Borges short story called "The Library of Babel," about mythical library that contains all possible 410-page books. I mention this only because I'm pretty certain that the Internet has now produced all possible blog posts on the subject of a public option -- and, more specifically, the death of the public option. On Saturday, attempting to quell the controversy, President Obama said that "both the right and the left that have become so fixated on [the public option] that they forget everything else," which, naturally, lots of people used as an excuse to further fixate on the public option and forget the remaining few things they had remembered. And now it's reported that the public option teeters at the brink of death.

I don't totally understand the fuss.

Part of my confusion is that the "new" details that have emerged in the last few days -- some Senators say they are opposed, the administration says it's flexible, etc -- are about as fresh as an April fool's joke. Kent Conrad, believe it or not, has never been enamored with the idea a new government healthcare program. And part of my confusion is that you really can argue the political implications of this situation in just about any direction you want. Maybe the administration is just using the public option as a bargaining chip with the insurance industry. Or maybe lots of congressional democrats really won't vote for a bill without one. Or maybe dropping the public option will satisfy the most vituperative critics and allow the other 600 elements of a health-care bill to slip unscathed through the remaining 7,200 congressional committees. Or maybe not. It's going to be a long month.

But, more importantly, I think the debate over the fate of the public option obscures two substantive debates. The first is that there are big differences between how we might imagine a "public option." (This piece by Time's Karen Tumulty and this NYT column from Richard Thaler do a good job of laying out the big differences.) The second is that the public option is only a means to an end -- reducing costs and expanding coverage -- and there's little that is unique about a PO's ability to do either of these things. If liberals are picking between, say, a strong individual mandate with generous and well-targeted subsidies, and a public option vitiated by the long August recess, there's absolutely no shame in going with former. Not that anyone's offering that choice, of course. But there's no reason to turn a public option into a political fetish.