Editor's Notes

The fight over the public option in the health care bill wasn't just about containing costs

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A year ago, we were dancing in the streets celebrating Barack Obama's election. Now we're marching in the streets protesting his escalation of the war in Afghanistan — and a lot of us are calling for the defeat of his signature legislation. That's a failure that goes well beyond a couple of bad policy decisions, and it threatens more than just the next few years of Obama's presidency.

The late philosopher Herbert Marcuse used to say that the worst disaster of the Vietnam War was the division it created between the baby boomers and their parents, the generational distrust that would last well beyond the final artillery fire. And I fear that the worst legacy of Afghanistan and the mess that is health care reform will be another deep blow to whatever fragile faith remains among young Americans that a well-meaning president and his party can make a difference, the faith that government can accomplish something worthwhile — and that the public sector is worth the fight it takes to save it from a well-organized and lavishly funded effort to continue the privatization of the United States.

The fight over the public option in the health care bill wasn't just about containing costs, or preventing tax hikes, or mandating fair competition. The insurance industry knew that from the start.

One of the reasons the radical right has always hated Social Security is that it's a government program that helps people, one that tens of millions of citizens rely on and support. When the government sends you a check every month, you tend to think of the folks in Washington as something other than crooks, liars, and villains.

And if the government offered health insurance that cost less than the private companies, covered more, and was less of a hassle to use, then millions more American voters would begin to realize that the public sector can do some things very well — much better than private industry. And that would be a social transformation on the scale of the New Deal.

So that's why the insurers and their toadies wouldn't allow it to happen — and why, in the wake of the Afghanistan fiasco, Obama's failure to force the issue is such a momentous disappointment.

Just look around the streets of San Francisco at any antiwar demonstration and you see the problem. We're mad at the president, not at the insurance industry. Nobody's marching in front of the headquarters of the handful of big companies that have — as a matter of course and intentional policy — destroyed the health care system in America. We figure: hey, they're just big businesses, doing what they do.

So instead, we're going to be pissed off for a long time at the man who — maybe for just a moment, one bright shining moment — had the ability to turn around about 50 years of cynicism and distrust that has poisoned American politics. And we should be pissed, because he let us down. He promised us hope. Now he's giving up, without even putting up much of a fight.