Why the Washington Post is hyping the public option.

How to fix health policy.
Oct. 20 2009 6:20 PM

Sun Rises in East, Sets in West

Why the Washington Post is hyping the public option.

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"Public Option Gains Support" reads the lead headline on the front page of the Oct. 20 Washington Post. Citing a new Washington Post/ABC News poll, Dan Balz and Jon Cohen report that "support for a government-run health-care plan to compete with private insurers has rebounded from its summertime lows and wins clear majority support from the public."

Given the story's prominent placement, readers might be forgiven for believing that something dramatic has occurred, such as a huge change in support for the public option. Actually, the public option went from having a lot of support to having a smidgen more support. Fifty-seven percent of respondents said on Oct. 18 that they favor "having the government create a new health insurance plan to compete with private health insurance plans," compared with 52 percent in August and 55 percent in September. Notes the MSNBC blog First Read: "Wow, did the Washington Post pump up a very minor uptick when it comes to the public option."

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That the public option maintained steady majority support throughout the summer is not, strictly speaking, news. A similar tracking poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation measured support for a public option at 59 percent in July, 59 percent in August, and 57 percent in September. A New York Times/CBS News poll showed essentially the same three-month trend but with a one-month dip in August (when tea-baggers and other nutcases were disrupting town meetings on health reform): 66 percent, 60 percent, and 65 percent.

Why, then, is the Post pretending that 55 percent supporting the public option represents some miraculous resurgence? There are three likely reasons.

1) Majority support for the public option has been ignored in Washington. A common misapprehension here in the nation's capital is that the priorities of any random grouping of elected officials reflects the views of "the American people." That isn't true of the U.S. Senate, which overrepresents the small number of people in sparsely populated states, and it most especially isn't true of the Senate finance committee, whose consideration of the health reform bill dominated news coverage these last couple of months. A mere eight-to-10-vote minority of the 23-member finance committee may favor a public option, but that tells you nothing about what the public thinks.

As it happens, a slim majority of the Senate supports the public option—52 percent according to Senate health committee chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and 51 percent according to the liberal blogger Chris Bowers of Open Left—though this count includes supporters of Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe's worthless "trigger" plan. (See "Triggernometry.") Because conventional wisdom currently holds (wrongly) that health reform can pass only with a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority, Washington reporters lately developed the sloppy habit of deeming 59 percent to represent a minority even in non-senatorial contexts. That, they now realize, is bad math.

Interestingly, until two days ago, anyone who raised the possibility that the public option might clear the Senate risked scorn from the Washington commentariat. When Sen. Chris Dodd said on NBC's Meet the Press on Oct. 18 that a public option ought to be in the final bill, David Gregory shot back: "But aren't we beyond—Senator, aren't we beyond strong beliefs?  I mean, isn't this brass tacks time? What have you got in terms of the votes? You've got one Republican senator who's not for it, you've got conservative Democrats who are not for it. They seem to have most of the influence over the final package here."

That was Sunday. This is Tuesday, when the chattering classes risk overestimating the public option's odds of success. Which brings us to:

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