CBO Says Public Option Would Reduce Defict; No Minds Changed

Sorry for the cynical headline, but the news that the Congressional Budget Office scored Rep. Pete Stark's proposal to add a public option to the coming insurance exchanges as reducing the deficit by $53 billion through 2019 is all well and good, but it won't change the minds of anyone who opposed it the first time around. First of all, there is virtually no such thing as a true "deficit hawk" in Washington. Concern about deficits is a handy excuse everyone uses to justify cuts in programs they already don't like. Democrats are at least a little more honest about it, pointing out that there are times you need to increase the deficit in the short term, while Republicans just say that we need to cut programs that help ordinary people so we can reduce the deficit, but things like defense spending and tax cuts for the wealthy just don't count. So saying, "This program you don't like would cut the deficit" isn't going to persuade anyone who didn't already support it to come on board. If you remember the debate over the public option during health care reform, it went something like this:

Liberal: "The public option will save money, cut the deficit, and offer people who don't trust private insurers a choice. If we're right, the program will work well and people will choose it. If we're wrong, no one will choose it, and you'll be proved right. So what are you afraid of?"

Conservative: "Bureaucrats! Socialism! Government takeover! Shut up, hippie!"

A slight exaggeration, perhaps. But that was pretty much the position of not only every Republican but people like Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman as well. Remember when Lieberman decided that the public option was so horrific he'd filibuster any bill that contained it? And then when liberals said, OK, we'll drop the public option, but how about a Medicare buy-in for people in their 50s, which was once something you advocated, Sen. Lieberman? And then Lieberman said that a Medicare buy-in was so horrific he'd filibuster any bill that contained it?

To Republicans, and the Nelsons and Liebermans of the world, the public option isn't a program to be evaluated on its merits; it's something liberals like, and therefore is utterly unacceptable. There was once a time when health care was an issue that people of differing ideology could, if not agree on, at least have a reasonable conversation about. Not anymore.

-- Paul Waldman

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