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Why Nate Silver is Wrong About the Public Option

John on December 18, 2009 at 7:57 am

Nate Silver wrote a post yesterday titled “The Public Option Fight May Not Have Been Winnable.” Nate argues that there was never enough support for the public option to suspect it could pass, therefore there’s no real sense in being disappointed that it hasn’t. To support this view he offers quotes from four Senators speaking in opposition to the public option. You can click over to read the quotes, but here are the dates:

  • Blanche Lincoln — June 18th
  • Mary Landrieu — June 9th
  • Joe Lieberman — June 14th
  • Ben Nelson — April 30th

I’m going to quibble with that last date for Ben Nelson. Clicking on the link Nate provides takes you to this site which excerpts the statement from CQ (Congressional Quarterly). However the date on the post is May 1st. Similarly, this site has the same excerpt, also dated May 1st. So I think the correct dates are these (in chronological order):

  • Ben Nelson — May 1st
  • Mary Landrieu — June 9th
  • Joe Lieberman — June 14th
  • Blanche Lincoln — June 18th

And again, Nate’s point is that all four were already against the public option as far back as May 1st, so really nothing much has changed.

The problem with this analysis is that something did change. It changed dramatically in fact, but it did so before all of the dates Nate gives. What changed?

On April 27th, 2009 Morgen posted the now infamous Schakowsky video. You’ve seen this right?

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The clip was picked up by Hot Air, Gateway Pundit and many other blogs. The hit count went over 10K in the first two days.

On May 5th, the NY Times reported that — out of nowhere — Senator Schumer was proposing a new “middle ground” on the public option which was designed to insure that government would compete on a level playing field with industry. At the tail end of the piece, the Times explained why this compromise was timely, saying:

On Monday [May 4th], some insurers and Republican lawmakers circulated a video clip of a recent speech by Representative Jan Schakowsky, Democrat of Illinois, in which she said insurers were right to fear that a public plan option could “put the private insurance industry out of business.” Ms. Schakowsky said that might happen because of “the superiority of the public health care option.”

By May 6th — nine days after posting it — the video had received 90K views on You Tube.  That same day, You Tube received a copyright claim about the clip and removed our original copy.

Also the same day, Schakowksy appeared on Fox business where she was introduced with a portion of the clip and then allowed to walk back her statements without really being asked any tough questions. You can see the You Tube clip of her appearance here. She had clearly been to the woodshed and was hoping for damage control, but the damage was already done. The public option was on the defensive, where it remained until it was finally dropped a few days ago.

Now we know for certain that all of the factors Nate Silver offers as evidence came after the video went viral. We know that all but one (Ben Nelson’s comment) came well after the NY Times mentioned it circulating on the hill.

Is it possible Nelson also saw the clip on Thursday the 30th or Friday the 1st before his comments? I think so. Here is a bit more of that CQ piece on Ben Nelson, the one dated May 1st:

Nelson sides with opponents, who say a government-run plan would undermine the nation’s existing system of employer-sponsored health insurance.

Republicans, insurers and business groups say private insurers could not compete with a government-run plan, which presumably wouldn’t have to spend money on activities such as marketing or developing networks of participating physicians and hospitals. Eventually, opponents say, most consumers would join the public plan, either because its prices are lower or because their employers stop offering insurance.

“At the end of the day, the public plan wins the game,” Nelson said. He called the inclusion of a public plan in legislation a “deal-breaker” for him.

His concern is that business will be crowded out by the public plan, exactly the topic of the Schakowsky video. It’s not definitive, but I think his comments plus the timing suggests strongly that he may have seen it.

So that’s my response to Nate Silver. The public option wasn’t DOA. This was not a forgone conclusion. This was a battle. The Democrats had a very cynical plan (a “sneaky strategy” to quote Ezra Klein) to trick Americans into step 1 of a single-payer system. It could have worked. It almost did. But because the truth got out, their plan failed. In fact — given the time, energy and political capital invested in this — it’s the very definition of EPIC FAIL.

The irony of course is that Jan Schakowsky is probably the person most responsible for spoiling the public option’s chances. Had she not opened her mouth in the way she did, things might be different.

As it is, by bringing Schakowsky’s comments to people’s attention, VS and all the blogs that linked to us or posted the clip (especially Hot Air and the Heritage Foundation blog) played an important role in stopping one of the biggest government power grabs in the nation’s history. There were many more clips to follow and they continued to play a role, right through to the bitter end. But the way I see it, the mortal wound happened right here on April 27th. That’s the day we killed the public option.

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