Why Chuck Schumer Is Backing the Public Option (Again)

By
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Perhaps you remember the public option? It's the health-care reform idea that was alternately touted as the best and only hope to "keep the insurance companies honest" (by President Obama) and demonized as the leading edge of a socialist takeover of America (choose your favorite Republican or tea partier). The public option seemed dead back in late December, and then it was buried by the January election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts. Yet last week the public option staggered back into the public discussion, revived by a flurry of nearly giddy lefty website items and a letter circulated by Colorado senator Michael Bennet urging the use of reconciliation (a parliamentary maneuver that would require only Democratic votes) to pass it. The resurrection got a significant boost when Chuck Schumer became the first member of the Senate leadership to sign on.

There is, however, both more and less to this burst of activity than meets the eye. Obama has promised to deliver a revised health-care initiative on Monday, and the renewed chatter about the public option is an attempt to shape the president's proposal. The most important agitators are liberal activist groups led by MoveOn.org, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and Howard Dean's Democracy for America — and they've succeeded in getting the attention of Democratic senators by threatening to run ads against incumbents who don't back the public option. Many of the signers of Bennet's letter are vulnerable this fall — including New York's own Kirsten Gillibrand — and certainly don't need to be fighting off friendly fire. "The ads we've run so far focus on making sure electeds understand the popularity of the public option, and encouraging them to vote the right way," says Democracy for America's Mary Rickles. "The public option polls especially well with the base, and as the midterms get closer, people really need to start looking at the numbers." On Friday, MoveOn rewarded Gillibrand by labeling her "a hero of the public option" in an e-mail to the group's supporters. Perhaps more Democrats will heed the threats, or grow a spine, and resort to reconciliation to pass a stronger health-care bill. But 51 votes are needed, and as of Sunday only twenty senators had signed.

Schumer has been a consistent supporter of the public option, but has nothing real to worry about in November's elections, so his renewed endorsement of the idea isn't entirely tactical. But he, too, has a political incentive to make nice with the Democratic base. If Harry Reid loses in Nevada, Schumer will find himself competing against Illinois's Dick Durbin to become the next Senate majority leader. Schumer loudly denies any interest in the job, as he must, but he'd be foolish not to position himself for the possibility. Coming out strongly in favor of the public option again only helps Schumer with progressive activists, who could be powerful allies for his majority-leader candidacy. The fact that Obama, eager to pass anything that can be called health-care reform, seems to have little enthusiasm for reviving the public option doesn't much matter. Except if you're middle class and struggling to get health insurance.