Julian E. Zelizer: Liberals' passion for public option





[Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. His new book, "Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security -- From World War II to the War on Terrorism," will be published this fall by Basic Books. Zelizer writes widely about current events.]

President Obama was caught off guard by the frustration that liberals expressed at the suggestion he might drop the public option from health care reform.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned that, "There's no way I can pass a bill in the House of Representatives without a public option."

The proposal for the government to offer Americans health insurance as one of their options had excited many Democrats.

But the White House insists that the public option was not central to its original plan. One senior adviser complained to the Washington Post, "I don't understand why the left of the left has decided that this is their Waterloo." Still, the administration responded to its critics and again expressed support for the public option.

The passion among liberals for the public option is something the White House should consider when deciding how to talk about the rest of the proposals over the next two months...

... When so much is at stake with legislation, voters get anxious when they can't understand what is being proposed. This is why picking the right symbols and rhetoric has played such an enormously important role in presidential success. When Presidents Kennedy and Johnson pushed for Medicare in the early 1960s, they understood that placing the program within Social Security helped voters understand what the reform would entail...

... In 1993, the Clinton administration proposed a 240,000-word plan that attempted to reduce costs through regional health care exchanges. The plan was complex. Even worse, the political scientist Theda Skocpol reported that the administration was politically ambivalent about talking about the exchanges in too much detail, fearing that saying too much would only cause further political problems.

Speaking of the health care alliances, Clinton adviser James Carville told a New York Times reporter, "That's not where the debate goes. I don't understand exactly how the Social Security system works, but I'm for it." Opponents responded by portraying the plan as a Frankenstein monster.

The cartoonist Joe Sharpnack published a cartoon depicting an elephant, saying "Sheez! Can you believe this guy?" as he points to an impossible-to-follow chart labeled "Clinton Health Care." In the next frame he points to another chart, which is blank and labeled "Republican Plan," as he says, "Now here's something a little easier to understand. ..."

With voters unable to understand the nuances of much of Clinton's plan, the opposition had succeeded in portraying it as a huge government takeover that would eliminate patient choice. They have done the same this time around...


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