Krugman vs The Anti-Public Option Crowd

Paul Krugman has a must-read blog post pushing back on the self-described liberals, namely Joe and Ezra Klein,  who are criticizing the continued inclusion of the public option as an essential piece of healthcare reform. His entire post is important, but his conclusion is particularly apt in the relevance of supporting the public option as a mark for support for liberal political philosophies writ large.

Let me add a sort of larger point: aside from the essentially circular political arguments — centrist Democrats insisting that the public option must be dropped to get the votes of centrist Democrats — the argument against the public option boils down to the fact that it’s bad because it is, horrors, a government program. And sooner or later Democrats have to take a stand against Reaganism — against the presumption that if the government does it, it’s bad.


As Duncan Black pointed out yesterday, there is no chance “centrists” in American politics today would support the creation of Social Security, let alone public education or the US Postal Service.

The point is we’ve moved away from “there are just certain things government does well and should do” and over to “maybe government should do some stuff for the poor but that’s about it.” It’s a problem, both from a policy perspective, as there are certain things the government should do, and from a political perspective, as benefits-for-other-people never gets wide support.

Yet if we look around, there is no question that government is the best way to ensure a firm social safety net and communal services are efficiently delivered. To think otherwise is to ignore what has worked over the history of our country in favor of the very recent Republican dogma that reached its persuasive pinnacle from the mouth of Reagan.  It was then embraced by the Democratic Leadership Council and Democrats were told that in order to win, they had to sound like Republicans. This is a dynamic that the progressive blogosphere has been working against as a central narrative strain since its earliest days.

Opposing the public option is opposing the compromise that it represents – that in order to get something done, liberals had to surrender their pursuit of a Medicare for All-type system. More to the point, opposing the public option is tantamount to opposing the pursuit of what liberals believe in. That is a central point both Krugman and Black are making. It’s not just that the public health insurance option is a good idea from a policy standpoint, it is an idea that arises from a purely liberal political basis.

Now there may be political arguments against the public option. We don’t have the votes in the Senate. The administration won’t spend political capital to get these votes. There are risks to Democrats in red districts for supporting a government health insurance program. Et cetera. But these are temporary postulations that could easily be challenged and redefined, especially through principled leadership that showed a commitment to the efficacy of liberal ideas.

Looking forward to tonight’s speech by President Obama to a joint session of Congress, the question at hand is whether Obama will exert leadership in support of meaningful reform that includes the public option. I don’t know what he will say, but I hope he takes the largest microphone in the world and proudly stands up for both what he believes in and the intellectual history from which he comes.

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