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Tilting at Windmills

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June 21, 2009

SOMETHING TO STIFFEN SOFT SPINES.... Politicians tend to care about polls. Other considerations may apply pressure to an office holder, but nothing is quite as effective as cold, hard data pointing to public attitudes. When push comes to shove, popular ideas are much easier for a policy maker to support than unpopular ones.

In the context of the debate surrounding a public option in health care reform, lawmakers on the Hill may not care that President Obama wants such a provision and has a mandate to get one, but the recent poll numbers are so one-sided, the results should be hard for Congress to ignore.

An NBC/WSJ poll released the other day found that 76% of Americans believe it's either "extremely important" or "quite important" to "give people a choice of both a public plan administered by the federal government and a private plan for their health insurance."

The wording of that question was a little awkward, though. The results from the latest NYT poll are even more encouraging.

Americans overwhelmingly support substantial changes to the health care system and are strongly behind one of the most contentious proposals Congress is considering, a government-run insurance plan to compete with private insurers, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

The poll found that most Americans would be willing to pay higher taxes so everyone could have health insurance and that they said the government could do a better job of holding down health-care costs than the private sector.

Respondents were asked, "Would you favor or oppose the government's offering everyone a government administered health insurance plan like Medicare that would compete with private health insurance plans?" It wasn't even close -- 72% supported the public option. Among Republicans, the ones who are supposed to find the very idea of a public plan so outrageous, 50% favor the same policy idea.

Now, for conservative Republican lawmakers, it's likely that none of this matters. A public option can save money, can enjoy broad public support, and can make all kinds of sense, but they have a philosophical objection that trumps everything else. Fine.

But conservative Republicans represent a fairly small minority in Congress right now. For those Democrats who are reluctant to support a public plan, the concerns may be strategic -- they're worried that they'll be punished by voters for supporting a controversial idea. But that's precisely why a poll like this matters. It's not like Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman, and Evan Bayh can go to the next caucus meeting and say, "If we support an idea with 72% national approval, voters will kill us."

The president wants a public option. A majority of the House wants a public option. It's likely a majority of the Senate wants a public option. A clear majority of Americans want a public option. Oh, and not incidentally, a public option makes a lot of sense as a matter of public policy.

I don't know what more it would take to stiffen the spines of wavering Democratic senators who just can't seem to bring themselves to do what needs to be done.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (91)

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For those Democrats who are reluctant to support a public plan, the concerns may be strategic -- they're worried that they'll be punished by voters for supporting a controversial idea.

I sincerely doubt that. The most generous conclusion is that they feel they understand the problem better than voters. More likely, they are more concerned about political donations than fickle voters.

Posted by: Danp on June 21, 2009 at 8:44 AM | PERMALINK

I don't know what more it would take to stiffen the spines of wavering Democratic senators who just can't seem to bring themselves to do what needs to be done.

That one's easy. We, representing the "public lobby," just have to come up with more money to pay off these wavering Congress members than they currently receive from the insurance and pharmaceutical lobbies. Does anyone really think that this is not the case? That those who are against this or who are 'wavering' are doing so for some principled reason?

Unfortunately, there is no "public lobby," much like there is no "progressive lobby."

Posted by: terraformer on June 21, 2009 at 8:45 AM | PERMALINK

The way this folks had it figured, just the fact George Bush wasn't around meant things would get better without them having to do anything about anything, which is every Congressperson's ideal.
The idea that change meant "I take action" is beyond their minds.

Posted by: JMG on June 21, 2009 at 8:48 AM | PERMALINK

They seem to think that pushing some lowest-common-denominator that satisfies nothing except their need for comity is "leadership." Really, it's nothing but "followship" - and they're marching in a circle.

Posted by: Susie from Philly on June 21, 2009 at 8:53 AM | PERMALINK

I don't know what more it would take to stiffen the spines of wavering Democratic senators who just can't seem to bring themselves to do what needs to be done.

There's nothing to be done. Nothing. Polls could show 100% support among the public for government-sponsored healthcare. Makes no difference.

What DOES make a difference is the fact that Mitch McConnell will say mean things about Democrats if they even consider enacting progressive legislation. As Harry Reid can explain, the only possible way for Democrats to govern is to try to please Republicans.

Posted by: Domage on June 21, 2009 at 8:58 AM | PERMALINK

love is green for politicians; always has been and always will be.

and its kinda ridiculous that president mccain in on 'meet the press' this morning. i'd much rather have PRESIDENT ELIZABETH EDWARDS talking about the public option and the health plan bill in general.

gee, maybe next week, huh?

those lovely corporations running the media want us to hear from all sides, right? it's not like they -- and the politicians -- follow the money.

always have and always will...

Posted by: neill on June 21, 2009 at 9:06 AM | PERMALINK

i'd much rather have PRESIDENT ELIZABETH EDWARDS talking

It's sad that anytime the Edwards or Eliot Spitzer go on TV to talk about their subjects of expertise, the media only want to ask about their indiscretions. Wouldn't it be nice if just once, someone responded, "Do you do this to Gingrich?"

Posted by: Danp on June 21, 2009 at 9:11 AM | PERMALINK

"For those Democrats who are reluctant to support a public plan, the concerns may be strategic -- they're worried that they'll be punished by voters for supporting a controversial idea. "

Danp beat me with the copy/paste, but I'll add my two cents anyway-

Getting re-elected trumps EVERYTHING!-national defense, energy independence, health care.

You A-holes really don't get it- you're there to do OUR bidding, not your campaign contributors. . .

Posted by: DAY on June 21, 2009 at 9:29 AM | PERMALINK

It will take a credible primary challenge from the left. Those guys believe what they believe, and they're against the public option. They don't need stiffening of soft spines, but softening of thick skulls.

So. Ambitious Montana and Nebraska Democrats, who firmly and independently believe that they are the best people to deliver a public option, need to become convinced that they have a credible shot of getting elected. Then, they need to step up.

If this poll helps inspire them to do that, it might have an effect.

Posted by: Aatos on June 21, 2009 at 9:31 AM | PERMALINK

Polls might soften spines, but cold hard "contributions" from the Health "Care" industry harden them right back up.

Posted by: Former Dan on June 21, 2009 at 9:31 AM | PERMALINK

"I don't know what more it would take to stiffen the spines of wavering Democratic senators who just can't seem to bring themselves to do what needs to be done."

For Dems, public campaign financing. As for Republicans, public financing might release a few to do the right thing, but so long as their first priority is obstructing any progress that Dems might take credit for, there's not much we can do.

Posted by: beep52 on June 21, 2009 at 9:40 AM | PERMALINK

I don't know what more it would take to stiffen the spines of wavering Democratic senators who just can't seem to bring themselves to do what needs to be done.

We're approaching this from the wrong angle. The fact is, there is nothing we can do that will make the Democrats do the right thing and work for us rather than their corporate sponsors, at least nothing in the way of asking nicely through writing letters, emails, or making calls. They've been bought, and they're going to stay bought.

If, on the other hand, the people who bought them simply weren't around anymore, we might start to get somewhere.

I've brought this up before, but here it is again: it wouldn't take much to drive a stake through the hearts (profits) of the insurers. Right now, carrying insurance is optional. We don't HAVE to keep giving them our money in return for the chance that perhaps, maybe, if they feel like it, they'll cover our expenses when we get sick. Let's be very clear that continuing to pay them is a CHOICE, one that for the majority is motivated by fear more than actual immediate necessity.

My guess is that, if they were to lose a significant portion of their customers - say 30 - 50% - even the biggest insurer would be out of business in under 6 months. Basically, if every healthy person with employer-provided care simply opted out of their coverage at the same time, there would be no private insurers left to throw their weight around in just a few months. Why only healthy people with employer-provided plans? Because they have the least risk; if the insurance boycott didn't work, they could easily re-enroll in their employer's plan. Those who are individually insured might not be able to get coverage again and those with pre-existing conditions whose insurance helps cover medications etc need the help of insurance to cover their expenses. They should stay covered while those of us who are most able to do so burn the bastard to the ground. The added bonus to this plan: the insurers keep the customers who are costing them money, while all the ones that generate profits for the insurers opt out. Think of it as an accelerant. Burn baby, burn!!!

The fact is, if we were to really work such a strategy, our good Democrats would probably step in and do the right thing long before the insurers incinerated. Imagine being a politician, knowing how pissed off the majority of your constituents already are over the fucked-up system they continue to protect, and suddenly getting a flood of hundreds of thousands of letters from constituents explaining that in 60 or 90 days they're going to simply stop paying for insurance - letters that include copies of the cancellation notifications they're sending to their insurers. The calculus changes. Suddenly, you start hearing from your corporate sponsors, who are screaming at you to do something, anything, to stave off the impending disaster. At the same time, you're thinking about your prospects going forward if you stand idly by and watch a fifth of the economy burn to the ground in an act of arson you knew was coming - in a shite economy, what do you think that would do to the unemployment rolls? And, of course, you already know that those who were pissed off enough to send in cancellation letters on their policies aren't going to be in your corner on election day if you let things ride to the point that they spend even one day without medical coverage.

Now, I'll let someone else have the floor and you can all pile on about how it won't work. You're probably right - and definitely right if you're still approaching this from the fear of what might happen to you personally angle. That's the problem, though, innit? Right now, people are risking being shot in Iran to fix something they disagree with. If even the healthiest among us aren't willing to risk going uninsured for the few months it would take to put these bastards out of business, we'll continue to get the shit treatment we've been getting for the past 30 years. It's only gone on this long because we've never exercised the very real power we have to stop it. As they say, no pain, no gain.

Posted by: Jennifer on June 21, 2009 at 9:44 AM | PERMALINK

From the desk of Evan Bayh:

I oppose a public option for purely philosophical reasons. A public option would be unfair to the health care insurance industry which has contributed mightily to the current state of health care in our country.

I would never let contributions from any industry buy my vote on this important topic. It is also insulting to imply that the role that my wife has on the board of directors of Wellpoint (Anthem/Blue Cross/Blue Shield) or the five pharmaceutical and biotech corporations will affect my position as we move forward on critical reforms. It is extremely insulting to imply that the almost $1 million my wife receives for these board positions will affect my vote.

Posted by: Evan 'I wish he would go' Bye on June 21, 2009 at 9:50 AM | PERMALINK

There are not many heavy hitters in Montana. Money for major politios of that state must seek money from the outside. Baucus learned this game when he was the single US Rep in Congress. When, he needed money to run for the Senate and replace a RepuG, he opened his coffers to the Bigs-Pharma, Insurance and Banking. He has voted to the right to keep the old guard RepuGs voting for him. But, his main concern is protecting his donors.

DanP, there is a heck of a difference between Spitzer and Edwards. I agree with you about Spitzer, but, not Edwards. Having leaned strongly towards him during the early primary run, I find, his actions, during his wife's illness to be despicable, but, his lying to all concerned was even more egregious. For a trial lawyer, he showed tremendous naivete in not understanding how easily one can be outed, once that person is in the public spotlight. But, he compounded this by lying to his supporters - Spitzer owned up and moved on and I wish he was in the Administration instead of Geithner.

Posted by: berttheclock on June 21, 2009 at 9:54 AM | PERMALINK

Wow, Jennifer- You da man!

Posted by: DAY on June 21, 2009 at 9:56 AM | PERMALINK

Politicians care about money and power. They do not care about the people they're elected to serve. You look at a list of donors for "soft spined" Dems re: health care, and you'll find a lot of insurance companies feathered their nests.

We've been slowly pulling away from the original intent of congress -- to represent, very specifically, the people of their district or state -- the last 30 years or so. And now it's pretty much a done deal. The Dems have a huge majority and are proving that they're just as bad, in their own way, as Repubs.

Posted by: zhak on June 21, 2009 at 10:23 AM | PERMALINK

This isn't really new.

Poll after poll after repeated poll has found that majorities of both the public and of doctors support a single-payer, nonprofit medical insurance system under open, accountable, efficient public administration.


Posted by: SecularAnimist on June 21, 2009 at 11:58 AM | PERMALINK

Now, for conservative Republican lawmakers, it's likely that none of this matters. A public option can save money, can enjoy broad public support, and can make all kinds of sense, but they have a philosophical objection that trumps everything else. Fine.

It's not even really the philosophical question; the bottom line is that a public plan would be good for Democrats in the eyes of voters, and the GOP absolutely refuses to yield that political ground. In the long run, they could demonize and possibly defund a public option-- like PJ O'Rourke noted, get into office to prove government doesn't work-- but they know that in the interim they'll still be the political losers on this issue.

For those Democrats who are reluctant to support a public plan, the concerns may be strategic -- they're worried that they'll be punished by voters for supporting a controversial idea.

DanP's mostly right-- it's more that they just think they know better, and about corporate donations. I also think that they don't want to slog through the process of actually establishing a workable system, and/or designing one that wouldn't be run by Congress and therefore a perpetual political hassle for them.

We, representing the "public lobby," just have to come up with more money to pay off these wavering Congress members than they currently receive from the insurance and pharmaceutical lobbies.

The problem is that while we may be able to come up with more money for one or two election cycles, politicians know very well that grassroots movements and donations are unreliable, while business connections will be useful for their entire political careers. Part of this is that voters tend to grow distracted and inattentive over time, which is of course bad, but it's also true that we shouldn't have to fork over money for years on end just to participate meaningfully in our own government.

Posted by: latts on June 21, 2009 at 12:51 PM | PERMALINK

Why only healthy people with employer-provided plans? Because they have the least risk; if the insurance boycott didn't work, they could easily re-enroll in their employer's plan.


If you are covered under an employer's policy, then please refer to the plans eligibility rules before you try this. Many plans state that an employee can drop coverage at any time, but must wait for the policy renewal date to re-enroll. Many times that policy renewal date is locked in stone to be the anniversary date of when the coverage originally began. [The exception usually is a change in the family either through: birth, adoption, or marriage.]

It's a nice thought, Jennifer, but many people would probably find themselves without health insurance for much longer than bargained for.

For that reason alone, this would probably not get the grassroots support in enough numbers to make it effective.

Posted by: jcricket on June 21, 2009 at 1:17 PM | PERMALINK

With these polling numbers, it's clear that the current composition of the democratic party is as flawed as that of the republicans. Neither party represents the people, and this has been the case since the 60's.

Posted by: rbe1 on June 21, 2009 at 3:34 PM | PERMALINK

jcricket: Not to mention that if you lose your job after dropping coverage, you're s*** out of luck for COBRA, and may face obstacles getting covered in your next job.

Posted by: Hob on June 21, 2009 at 4:44 PM | PERMALINK

"But conservative Republicans represent a fairly small minority in Congress right now."


Not only that, conservative Republicans represent a fairly small minority of the electorate. As evidenced in the poll.

Posted by: JPS on June 21, 2009 at 5:58 PM | PERMALINK

Looks like about everyone has figured out what the real problem is. Basically campaign money. The people against the public option give politicians a lot more of it than the people favoring the public option. If you really think that more than a small percentage of Representatives and Senators give a rat's hairy behind about what's best for their constituents when it is opposed by the money boys, then maybe we can talk about some vacation land I have for sale just south of Galveston within a mile or so of the beach.

Posted by: Texas Aggie on June 21, 2009 at 8:51 PM | PERMALINK

I don't know what more it would take to stiffen the spines of wavering Democratic senators who just can't seem to bring themselves to do what needs to be done.

I'm sure massive lobbying efforts and campaign contributions will influence which way the Democratic Congresscritters will vote...oh, wait...

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