In the historic eruption of insanity and ignorance that has been the public health-care debate of 2008-09, the most nonsensical idea that surfaced was that the world would end if the government ever got into the business of insuring something.
For a while, it cropped up at town-hall forums all over the country, spurred by commercials and blogs engineered by the insurance industry and its fellow travelers.
“Ohmigod, what's our country coming to — now the government is going to run health insurance!” screamed people who were insured by Medicare and the Veterans Administration or else longed for the day they could be.
People lose their senses in herds and regain them slowly, one by one, as a Scottish songwriter and journalist observed in a wonderful history of popular delusions composed after a long visit to America 150 years ago. Mercifully, the government-insurance hysteria seems to have subsided in most places except in the darkest precincts of Republican orthodoxy. Polls show that a vast majority of Americans favor the government offering health insurance to poorer working people, and big Democratic majorities in Washington now favor it.
One of the few places that the folly really seems to have taken hold is Arkansas, where the newspapers march to the same beat as Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. The two Arkansas lawmakers who found themselves at the center of the health debate in Washington owing to the accident of their committee assignments, Sen. Blanche Lincoln and Rep. Mike Ross, now seem so convinced that Arkansas voters are terrified of government insurance they have shrunk into a corner where they must vote against health reform that both have said was the nation's first order of business.
What pathetic irony it will be if Sen. Lincoln turns out to be the only Democrat in the Senate to support a filibuster to prevent a majority vote on health reform and perhaps is the person who brings down the health bill and along with it the president and her party. That from the state that produced Joe T. Robinson of Lonoke, the Senate majority leader who engineered the greatest insurance program in history, government or private — Old Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance (to the teabaggers, that's Social Security) — and Wilbur D. Mills of Kensett, who produced the next two, Medicare and Medicaid.
Yes, those are government insurance programs and sometimes even Sen. Lincoln brandishes them as marvels of government good works. At a forum last week she responded to one questioner this way: “However, at least three of the programs you mentioned, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, are the most successful social programs in the world” and she added that the country should build on their success.
But not apparently by giving people who don't have health insurance the chance to buy a policy like Medicare rather than a Blue Cross plan.
Lincoln has been a curious and sad spectacle. Because she was a conscious middle-of-the-roader in a pivotal position and because she was known to be susceptible to pressures, the insurance industry, Republicans and the other foes of health reform have concentrated their fire on her. So has the other side.
She waffled, insisting that she had not made up her mind on a public insurance option and leaving herself room to vote for one. She said she would oppose a public plan that was completely funded by the government (none of the proposals in either house would do that) or one that did not give people options to buy elsewhere (ditto). Finally, like Ross in the House, she just came out flatly against it. No other member of the Arkansas delegation except the Republican John Boozman has done so.
Ross would remind a Medicare recipient who was railing against the prospect of government insurance that his beloved Medicare was government insurance. Then he would say he was against a government insurance option, although once he seemed to suggest letting people buy into Medicare. Ross once worried that a government-sponsored plan would be so cheap that everyone would flock to it, driving all the private carriers like Blue Cross, Cigna and Aetna out of business. Last week, he said so few people would buy the government plan that it would not be a competitive deterrent to the big private companies jacking up their premiums. That is the kind of year it has been.
Here is a question for Lincoln, Ross, the teabaggers and all the others who are driven to wails and tears about the prospect of the government offering to insure medical care for the working poor at reasonable premiums: If government insurance is so invidious would they be willing to cancel it for other services, not just Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, but veterans care, unemployment insurance or bank deposit insurance, just to name a few? What is the difference?
Six months ago, Senator Lincoln condemned President Obama for trying to reduce the federal budget by cutting the large taxpayer contribution to a government insurance program that she cherishes, the USDA's crop reinsurance program. Lincoln comes from a farm family and agriculture is her political base.
Government insurance for the prosperous is a good thing; the same option for the toiling poor is a danger to the republic. That is the kind of year it has been.