Why The Public Option S**t Storm Is Great News

by Noam Scheiber | August 18, 2009

I'm almost certainly going to get in trouble for blogging on vacation, but I thought this point needed to be made and didn't see anyone making it: I have no idea whether the administration intended to shift its position on the public option over the weekend (you can make a plausible case that it didn't), and, if so, what it hoped to accomplish. But what it has accomplished seems really important and helpful. Prior to all the apoplexy on the left, the two poles of the debate were the president, who wanted a reasonable, fairly moderate set of health insurance reforms, but was nonetheless being branded a socialist or whatever, and a lot of lunatics on the right screaming about death panels and enemies lists and home invasions.

Around the conference table at TNR, we've been saying for weeks that what Obama really needed was a group of equally vocal, equally zealous critics on the left, pulling the debate's center of gravity in the other direction. And, wouldn't you know, that's exactly what's happened over the last 48 hours. We've now got a pole on the left to match the intensity of the pole on the right. (Don't get me wrong: I'm not suggesting a moral equivalence between the two. As far as I'm concerned, the critics on the left are basically right and the critics on the right are either insane or deeply cynical.) From a sheer tactical perspective, I think the White House and the Democratic leadership in Congress have dramatically improved their position.

The benefits arise both in the broader national debate and in the congressional negotiations. In the national debate, Obama now looks like the centrist voice of reason instead of an over-ambitious lefty (I'm caricaturing, of course, in the spirit of the cable-news coverage). Inside Congress, Obama may not get a public option, but if he doesn't, he was never going to get it. And now he can extract a ton of concessions in return, because he can point to a left-wing of his party that's ready to eat him alive for failing to deliver on it (whereas that left-wing outrage was largely hypothetical before now). That kind of leverage is extremely helpful.

Okay, that's it till Monday. For real this time.

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