The idea of the federal government operating another health-insurance business to compete with Blue Cross/Blue Shield and hundreds of other private plans has crashed and burned -- the victim of a massive grassroots protest movement and deepening fears and divisions among Democratic lawmakers.
The White House gave Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius the go-ahead Sunday to suggest that the administration was not necessarily wedded to a government health-insurance plan for millions of uninsured Americans. But in a bit of good-cop/bad-cop playacting, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs insisted Monday that the president was still behind a government plan and that the news media had misinterpreted her remarks. Other West Wing officials said his positions had not changed, though they left him some wiggle room.
"The goals are choice and competition. His preference is a public option. If there are other ideas, he's happy to look at them," Gibbs said. But the Democratic Party's dominant left wing smelled a hasty retreat from the ideological core of Obama's nationalized health care plan. The party was fully at war with itself, and action on health care, this year at least, appeared to be a much shakier prospect.
Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, a leader in the health care debate who is pushing state and regional insurance co-operatives, pounded another nail in the public option's coffin Sunday, declaring that Democrats did not have the votes for it in the Senate.
Party liberals who have been among Obama's strongest supporters were furious, blaming the White House for a botched, weak-kneed strategy and -- worse -- betrayal of a solemn campaign promise to millions of voters.
"I wonder if the White House truly understands the depth of anger they'll face from the progressive side if they fail to pass health care reform with a strong public option," screamed Markos Moulitsas, founder of the radical Daily Kos Web site that has become the bible of the left's ground forces.
"We haven't busted our [expletive] the last four years to pass bank bailouts and give insurance companies everything they ever wanted. If we wanted that, we'd be Republicans," Kos wrote Monday. If Democrats "can't do the right thing here," he warned, he would lead a revolt "to rid ourselves of the corporatist hacks that infest our party."
Former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean's Democracy for America, a liberal grassroots group, sent an e-mail to its supporters saying that "a health care bill without a public option is DOA in the House. Period." Despite denials of a changed position, the White House has seen the handwriting on the wall, tacitly acknowledging that they were losing public support at the grassroots level because of the fierce opposition at hundreds of town-hall gatherings during Congress' month-long August recess.
A Rasmussen poll for the first time in two years finds that voters give Republicans a slight edge over the Democrats on the health care issue. A USA Today/Gallup Poll reports that independents are now siding with the town-hall protesters by two to one. Another Gallup Poll says more Americans disapprove of Obama's health care plan by 49 percent to 43 percent.
Reports coming in from the town-hall meetings also reveal deep doubts in the electorate about the government's ability to run responsibly any kind of business, let alone health care. Web sites and the blogosphere were peppered this week with repeated references to the government's most notorious business failures: Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Amtrak, the post office and, most disturbing of all, the Medicare program itself, which faces trillions of dollars in unfunded liabilities.
Another complaint being voiced by many Americans questioned the White House's decision to focus on a government takeover of the health care industry when the economy remained in shambles and was a much higher priority. Unemployment, home foreclosures and bankruptcies continued to rise as consumer confidence plunged and economists were forecasting a long and weak recovery period. New polls showed that confidence in Obama's economic policies has collapsed.
This week, a USA Today/Gallup Poll reported that 57 percent of those surveyed said the administration's $787 billion spending stimulus plan was either having no effect on the economy or was making things worse. Sixty percent voiced doubts it would have any impact next year or beyond. Nearly seven months into Obama's presidency, the wheels seem to be coming off his agenda. The energy tax plan is stalled in the Senate. Health care has turned into a Democratic battleground. Public confidence in his economic-stimulus plan is evaporating.
In each of these initiatives, the common denominators are more spending, deeper debt and increased taxes. At a time when the American people are tightening their belts, Fat City is getting fatter than ever.