Voters settle on a public plan

Sometimes Washington reveals just how detached it is by transforming an issue that is settled in the public mind into a matter of great controversy and contention. Ask anyone here to list the polarizing issues in the healthcare debate and the “public option” will shoot to the top.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPompeo lacks votes for positive vote on panel GOP poised to advance rules change to speed up Trump nominees Trump has not invited Democrats, media to state dinner: report MORE (R-Ky.) declared a public plan a “non-starter,” urging that it be abandoned if Democrats “want to get a truly bipartisan proposal.” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP sold Americans a bill of goods with tax reform law Republicans divided over legislation protecting Mueller Rand Paul under pressure as Pompeo hunts for votes MORE (R-S.C.) suggested he was open to compromise on almost any piece of the healthcare reform puzzle — except a public option. Rep. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntGOP poised to advance rules change to speed up Trump nominees McCaskill outpaces GOP opponent by more than million GOP senators raise concerns about babies on Senate floor MORE (Mo.), who leads House Republicans’ efforts on healthcare, devoted his entire national radio address to denouncing a public option.

Meanwhile, Democrats huddle nervously, assuming the GOP must be onto something. “They wouldn’t stake so much on this one line of attack if they didn’t know they could kill me with it come the next election” — or so the reasoning goes.

Despite the sturm und drang among politicians, a public plan generates barely a ripple of controversy among voters. In the last two months, no fewer than eight polls have found strong majorities favoring a public plan. When different pollsters, using different methods and different wording, all converge on the same answer, you can bet the public really does support a public option.

The highest level of support came in a survey sponsored by a bevy of corporations and conducted for the Employee Benefit Research Institute, which found 83 percent in favor of “creating a new public health insurance plan that anyone can purchase.” Just 14 percent opposed a public plan.

Quinnipiac also asked a simple question, unburdened by arguments on either side, which found supporters of a public plan outnumbering opponents by a 43-point margin.

In fact, only one poll asking a straight favor/oppose question has recorded majority opposition — but generating that opposition required Rasmussen to misstate the facts. They asked about creating “a government health insurance company to compete with private insurance companies.” The only surprise is that just 50 percent thought a government-run health corporation was a bad idea. Of course, no legislation under consideration in the House or the Senate even contemplates creation of a “government health insurance company.” So if some day someone were to actually propose such an animal, Rasmussen can responsibly say the public is opposed — until then their poll is meaningless.

“OK,” you respond, “on the surface, people overwhelmingly favor a public option, but surely a killer argument lurks just out of plain sight that turns the idea into an albatross ready to sink any politician who dares advocate it.” Not so much.

My distinguished Republican colleague Whit Ayres tried his hardest, but could not quite get there. He put the classic GOP argument in the mouth of Congressman B, who labeled the proposal “a first step toward a government takeover of healthcare similar to Europe and Canada with fewer covered procedures, long wait times for surgery and more government bureaucracy.” All those scare tactics left Congressman B six points behind a public-plan advocate who spouted a rather mealy-mouthed argument. Ayres got a little closer with a less evocative but wildly inaccurate argument alleging that a government plan would use taxpayer subsidies to put private insurance companies out of business, forcing consumers into the government plan. But even with this formulation, the public-plan advocate won out.

Controversy over a public plan extends only a few blocks beyond the Capitol building itself. Among voters, support is robust, surviving even the toughest arguments Republicans are using against it. Members might be wise to give up debating the manufactured controversies and start discussing the real ones.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.