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Why The Public Option is Critical for Healthcare Reform

A time for muscle

President Obama’s local allies should send WNED-AM a check so that our AM-band public radio station can extend its broadcast power. With more geographic reach, voters in the suburban and rural areas of Western New York could listen to the many presentations by former Vermont Governor Dr. Howard Dean and others on how crucial it is that far-reaching healthcare reform be enacted this fall.

More truth would help. An easy-to-digest format, like radio, is probably the best way to understand that at least the sensible critics of Obama’s approach (if not the rented brownshirts) agree that something needs to be done to rein in the power of the for-profit insurance companies. The stuff is far too dense for most folks to read, though there is a lucid summary of the issues in the August 13, 2009 article by Marmor and Oberlander, “Health reform: the fateful moment,” The New York Review of Books (

But let’s get down to pure politics. During this summer’s August Congressional recess, boosting radio signals would be a much more useful technique than participating in any so-called Town Hall meetings that can be invaded by thugs.

A recent radio debate showed why. In one of the many WNED-AM broadcasts on its morning shows, physician Howard Dean argued for the “public option,” which simply means a version of Medicare extended to folks under 65, against former McCain advisor Gail Wilensky, an economist who said that hard new regulations would work better.

It was radio delivering a “wow” moment. Both these calm, reasonable, articulate folks said that something has to give because the current system screws too many working people out of coverage. And here’s what else they agreed on: that our system costs too damned much.

You don’t get that from tv. The debate is too hard to follow in newspapers or on line—too many words! Understanding healthcare economics is really hard work, unless somebody calmly explains it. Thus the enduring utility of radio.

But Democratic messaging isn’t so good just now. Republicans are being very effective as they send Brownshirts to town halls. Their base stays solid thanks to the vile nonsense from Rush Limbaugh. The business class gets a daily dose of anti-Obama catechism from the Wall Street Journal editorial page and its predictions that healthcare reform is the road to serfdom.

The political question for Democrats is this: with their 60-vote majority in the Senate (counting Socialist Bernie Sanders of Vermont), and with a big majority in the House of Representatives, and with 86 members of the House having signed off on a Canadian-style single-payer system, will Democrats do as Democrats did when FDR proposed Social Security, and stick together against near-unanimous Republican condemnation, or will Democrats splinter and collapse?

The Obama presidency: RIP?

A wise Washington operative I know points out that Obama’s Congressional majorities are strong today, and need to be strengthened in the mid-term elections—the elections in which most presidents lose seats. (Not all presidents…)

But the House is not the only challenge coming up in the next year and three months. There are also 36 governors up for election in 2010. Eighteen of the incumbents are Democrats, but eight of them cannot run for re-election because of term limits. Governors and state legislatures are absolutely critical to Congress, because Congressional districts will get re-drawn after the 2010 Census, and the people who draw the maps reside in State governments.

Will the president’s party win in 2010? Will a defeat on healthcare reform in 2009 embolden Republicans to hammer Democrats in 2010?

Republicans already feel good about Michigan, where Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm is unpopular, and where the Democratic mayor of Detroit provided a protracted and very sorry spectacle even as automaker Armageddon occurred. In Pennsylvania, Democratic Governor Ed Rendell can’t run again, but it’s a good bet that the Democrats could hold that seat and the Senate seat of Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter, even if Specter himself probably won’t be in it. Ted Strickland in Ohio is up against a very respectable Republican former House member, John Kasich, who could rescue his state party’s reputation for thuggery, homophobia and money-grubbing sleaze.

And then there’s New York State, whose incumbent Democratic governor is low in the polls, whose Democratic state Senate is held even lower in public regard, and where, if David Paterson insists on being the candidate, you can bet on a strong, well-funded Republican candidacy that runs on anti-government, anti-tax protest message with a strong undercurrent of racism.

In other words, time is short for President Obama. He has to win now. And because of Senate and House Democratic majorities, only Democrats can defeat him.

The FDR example: win ugly but win

When Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner of Brooklyn warned that the House liberals were going to demand the “public option,” progressives were flexing muscle they haven’t felt in a heckuva long time. I frankly doubt that they will let the former Chicago community organizer forget how street campaigns work.

The good news is that while the Democrats have 60 seats in the US Senate, they will need only 51 to pass a strong reform bill.

Ideologues and their pet historians fool around with statistics whenever they address the question of whether Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency cured or prolonged the Great Depression. But there is no question on how the most profound and enduring changes of the New Deal were enacted: they were enacted with Democratic majorities.

The mid-term elections of 1934, after FDR’s election in 1932, saw a great upsurge in votes for Democratic members of Congress. The lesson was and remains crystal clear: strong policy, strongly advocated with strong political discipline, bolsters majorities—and creates lasting majorities.

Clear also is the lesson of 1994, when Bill Clinton not only lost on healthcare reform but also lost the House of Representatives to Republican control. Yes, the loss was in no small part because of the tremendous campaign savvy of our own Tom Reynolds, former congressman from Buffalo’s eastern suburbs. But it was also due to a failure to stick to a strong, simple message. Defections meant defeat.

But if Democrats let former Governor Howard Dean do more talking, discipline should get easier. Dean, sadly, screeched his way out of a presidential candidacy in 2004. Since then, however, and especially since he completed his term as head of the Democratic National Committee, he has acquitted himself brilliantly as a policy spokesman. The radio is his medium, and the medium for much of the policy messaging that progressives need to carry. Of course, radio is a shrinking medium, and a splintering one, and right-wing ranting has become the commonplace of most radio talk. That said, there’s an audience out there among adults who wash dishes, who garden, who drive around running errands in a radio-equipped car. Maybe not much of an audience, but as Howard Dean, Stephanie Miller, Ed Schulz and a few others are proving, it’s an audience that progressives would be wise to keep building.

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