When Democratic lawmakers take money from private health insurers, and then proceed to fight their own party, president and constituents by trying to undermine, hijack, maim, and vaporize the only hope we have of making American health care more Hippocratic than plutocratic -- we call it "politics."
Of course, this is nothing new. Politicians throughout history have been on the take in varying degrees of legality. From 54 B.C -- when every single candidate for Roman consulship was indicted on charges of bribery -- to Boss Tweed's Tammany Machine, to Representative Jefferson's Frigidaire, the violation of public trust in exchange for money has been the engorged leech on the body politic. But as the cost of modern American campaigning continues to soar (and the idea of meaningful campaign finance reform has become a quaint artifact of a bygone era), the once discreet tit-for-tat collusion between "special interests" and our leaders has oozed from the smoke-filled back rooms of yesteryear into a full-blown yard sale of political influence and favor. By now, selling votes to the highest corporate bidder is no doubt a rider on American legislators' oaths of office.
But, as commonplace as the ownership of our elected officials has become, the positions on the "public option" taken by the House Blue Dogs and centrist-conservative Democrats in the Senate are -- even by today's standards -- nauseating in their blatant toadyism, and shine the brightest spotlight yet on the Turkish bazaar we call the United States Government.
One would think the numbers alone would be enough to scare the Blue Dogs and Democratic Senators like Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu, Evan Bayh and Blanche Lincoln into line. Recent polls show that most Americans continue to believe a strong, non-triggered, public option is a good idea. Among Democrats and health professionals the pro-public option numbers are overwhelming. One can only imagine how Democratic doctors feel about it. Yet, these lawmakers have tried to crush the public option at every turn. To be fair, a few of these centrist-conservatives may have a little honest-though-misguided ideology prompting their party apostasy, and it's true that Landrieu will soon be facing a tough re-election in her conservative Louisiana. But she needs Democratic votes and the party's good will. She is -- despite all recent evidence to the contrary -- a Democrat. Civil rights groups have been airing TV ads pressing her on the issue, and unions are following suit with letter-writing campaigns. If she and her fellow flies in the ointment continue in their current direction, the Mark of Cain shall be upon them, friendless in the party and at the polls.
What could possibly make these folks behave in such a seemingly politically self-destructive way? What could make them side with the universally loathed health insurance industry -- the industry that views their policyholders as medicine-grubbing pests? Will the half-million Landrieu's gotten from insurance and health sectors, the million Nelson has received, the million and a half tossed to Bayh, and the nearly two million heaped upon Lincoln buy enough TV time to overcome the party alienation and livid voters created by their obstruction? They must think so.
Then, there's the morality -- the decency of it all. Thanks to Rep. Alan Grayson and a recent Harvard study (click here), it is now widely known that 45,000 Americans per year die because of lack of health insurance. That's die -- as in spouses and children left to grieve, or parents left to endure what many psychologists cite as the most profoundly excruciating experience life can dish out to a human psyche. Why? Because they could not afford, or were denied access to the care that might have detected that tiny tumor long before it became inoperable, or that irregular heart beat that eventually killed an otherwise healthy little kid. And, if 45,000 of us are dying of "lack of insurance," and related causes, like suddenly discovered "preexisting conditions" and "denied experimental procedures," how many of us are being blinded and crippled by the same conditions?
For many voters, this takes the public option issue out of the political realm and plants it firmly in personal, deeply-felt territory. The Blue Dogs' in-boxes must be exploding with emails asking, "Are you really going to sit there with an American flag pinned to your lapel while you condemn Americans to death for being sick or poor?" "Yes," is the implied answer, as they continue to march merrily along on their paths of obstruction; Senator Bayh's recent magnanimous pledge to refrain from joining the Republican filibuster notwithstanding. Surely, they must realize all the television time in the world will not erase the sense of betrayal these voters are feeling, or the blame these lawmakers will share if the public option goes up in smoke or turns out to be a combination of the spineless, industry-friendly versions currently being spewed by the Senate and the House.
Maybe they just don't get it. Maybe they're looking at the public option as just another bit of politics, to be wheeled and dealt with as their corporate sponsors see fit. It wouldn't be too surprising. When "Independent" Joe Lieberman announced his plan to join the planned Republican filibuster, the TV news reporter explained matter-of-factly that Senator Lieberman has a number of private health insurers based in his state -- as if it's understood that a senator-host to large insurance corporations is somehow required to hold American's health hostage to please his guests.
Or maybe there's something larger going on here. For the first time in a long time, congress and the President are considering a move that could deeply affect the bottom line of one of the wealthiest industries in the world. And, you can be sure the murmurs aren't limited to the tiny hearts beating in the chests of CEOs at Aetna and Wellpoint. Mega-corporations in every sector are watching the public option debate like slave owners fearing an uprising. And, you can be sure the Corporate Word has gone out to lawmakers everywhere: "Hey, if we can't trust you on this health care thing, what's gonna happen when my defense, energy, finance or transportation bill comes up before you guys? Are you gonna go Grayson and Kucinich on us?"
The implied threat of having his corporate spigots not only turned off, but also opened wide for his more "trustworthy" opponent in the next election puts the poodle back in the yard; that is, if the poodle was even thinking about jumping the fence in the first place.
Obama is wrong when he downplays the public option as a mere "sliver" of overall health care reform. It is the centerpiece, and he knows it. A government-run insurance option is the only way -- short of a politically unattainable, single-payer, European-type system -- to help make health care more affordable and accessible to Americans. But more importantly, it has become a crucible in American politics. The implementation of a real public option will show that reports of our democracy's demise have been somewhat premature.
Now that we've seen congress' embarrassing, whittled down versions of the plan, it is clear Obama's influence and veto power -- along with lawmakers who actually use their office to help Americans -- are our last and only hope. Will the oligarchy emerge triumphant, once again? Or will Obama use the power we gave him and start effecting real change, making the adoption of the public option an historic bellwether that saved our lives and our government -- when the common good went up against some of the wealthiest, most powerful corporations in the world, and despite their propaganda, their staged "grassroots" protests, their TV ads and the tireless efforts of their very own politicians -- the American people won.