The Future of the Public Option: An Update

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JONATHAN COHN SEPTEMBER 30, 2010

The Future of the Public Option: An Update

I’ve been convinced for a year now that the future of the public option was bright. Liberal activists love it, which means that Democrats are going to be pressed to support it in contested primaries. It polls well generally, meaning that Dems will feel it’s a relatively safe way to make liberal activists happy. And as a bonus, the CBO loves it, which means that supporting a public option allows liberal candidates to support spending or tax cuts and still claim that their proposals are deficit neutral. (The other piece, not relevant here, is that adding a public option could be done under reconciliation, so it could easily happen the next time Democrats have unified control of the House, the Senate, and the White House).

So, how’s that predication working out in the 2010 election cycle? I’ve looked at the twenty Democratic candidates in Senate races considered competitive by Charlie Cook. I started with each of the candidate’s web pages, and then did a quick search on “[candidate name] public option.”  I also looked at whether the candidates had competitive primaries or not; competitive primaries should push Democratic candidates to support public option. All in all, I’d say that I found plenty of good news for public option supporters.

Of the the twenty candidates, I only found one, Blanch Lincoln, who explicitly opposes the public option, which of course was her position during Senate debate. I’m pretty sure one other, Charlie Melancon in Louisiana, opposes public option as well, although I didn’t see a clear statement. Lincoln of course had a tough primary; Melancon did not. I should probably mention as well that neither of them is likely to win this year, anyway. Continuing with the twenty candidates:

Five, including Lincoln, are incumbents. Four, as far as I can tell, support a public option; of those, three mention it on their web pages. None of those had primaries.  Lincoln did have a primary, and she highlights her opposition to the public option (and support for the bill that passed) on her web page.

Seven challengers or open seat candidates had competitive primaries. Every one appears to support the public option. Four mention it on their web pages. A fifth, Conway, apparently did last time I looked at this question, but doesn’t now -- he now has no health care issue page at all. Seven for seven.

Eight challengers or open seat candidates (including Melancon) did not have competitive primaries. Of these, two are definitely for a public option, with only one of those featuring it on his web page. One, as I said, is probably against. For the other five, a quick search did not turn up anything for or against.

To be fair, we’re basically talking about mentions of the public option for these candidates; they don’t, from their web pages at least, appear to be campaigning on it at this point. Only one candidate did something like that (with a public option position in bold type). It’s also fair to say that party pressure is not strong enough to force candidates to take a strong stand on the issue just to win activist support for the general election. Still, that’s a fairly eye-popping effect: every non-incumbent with a competitive primary appears to be an explicit public option supporter, compared to only a quarter of those without such primaries.

So what does that tell us about the future of the public option? As I said up top, it looks like good news for public option supporters to me. Granted, in terms of immediate effect, I wouldn’t expect anything in the 112th Congress; even if the Democrats wind up at the far upside for them of the plausible range of electoral results, it’s hard to see them pushing any new health care initiatives in the next two years beyond whatever is needed to get the ACA up and running. But if things go well for them, then I could very much imagine the public option being a campaign issue for aggressive Dems in 2012 and legislation moving in the subsequent Congress. All in all, six months after the passage of ACA without a public option, I continue to believe that it’s in the cards next time Democrats win an election and have unified control of Congress and the presidency.

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posted in: jonathan cohn, midterm elections, politics, blanch lincoln, charlie melancon, senate

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