The puzzling thing about politicians of either party who claim to be “centrist” or “moderate” is how much they sometimes sound like right-wing Republicans. Distinguishing among these different species of politicians on Capitol Hill can often be difficult during the current struggle over health care reform, especially when a senator like Blanche Lambert Lincoln of Arkansas tries to explain herself. Like so many of the Republicans they try to emulate, these Democrats claim to worry about spending and deficits—except on programs that benefit them, their favorite constituents and the lobbyists who pay their campaign expenses.
Facing reelection and plummeting poll numbers, Ms. Lincoln voted to commence debate last weekend. Then she turned around and warned that she would probably join a Republican filibuster against the Democratic health reform bill. Why? Because the Democratic legislation, favored by a clear majority, is likely to include a public option.
Last July, she published an essay on the op-ed page of the largest daily paper in Arkansas that stated clearly why a public option should be part of a broader reform plan: “Individuals should be able to choose from a range of quality health insurance plans. Options should include private plans as well as a quality, affordable public plan or non-profit plan that can accomplish the same goals as those of a public plan.” That makes perfect sense in her state, where Blue Cross–Blue Shield controls 75 percent of the insurance market, and throughout much of the South, where similar monopoly conditions prevail.
But over the summer, Ms. Lincoln and certain other members of her party were simultaneously spooked by low poll numbers and persuaded by big insurance and pharmaceutical donations. So more recently, she has learned to parrot the Republican talking points about the public option and the general topic of health care. The fact that those talking points are largely untrue doesn’t seem to trouble her or the other nominally Democratic senators who have likewise threatened to join the filibuster.
“For some in my caucus, when they talk about a public option, they’re talking about another entitlement program, and we can’t afford that right now as a nation… I would not support a solely government-funded public option. We can’t afford that,” she has said.
Yet if Ms. Lincoln has actually read the Democratic health care bill—and the analysis provided by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office—then she knows that none of those complaints are valid. The public option is not an entitlement program, although the health care bill will provide subsidies to help families that cannot afford health insurance to buy either public or private plans. Second, the public option proposed in either the Senate or House versions of the bill would not be funded solely by the government, because both bills require the plan to be supported fully through premiums paid by the insured. Third, the proposed bill is not only deficit-neutral but is estimated to reduce the federal deficit by hundreds of billions of dollars over the next two decades.
Now, of course, Ms. Lincoln—just like her fellow self-proclaimed moderates—is well aware of all those basic aspects of the bill, because she insists that she has read every word. Still, she tells the world that we cannot afford real reform.
What can we afford? According to these worthy senators, we can afford to spend a million dollars per soldier to send another 40,000 troops to Afghanistan—an amount that would add up over the coming decade to approximately $400 billion, with no obvious benefit. And according to Ms. Lincoln, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, we can afford to spend $14 billion a year or more on farm subsidies that mainly enrich corporate farms and wealthy growers. Back home in Phillips County, Ark., for example, where her family owns considerable acreage in rice and soybeans, big farmers have cashed U.S. government checks totaling more than $300 million over the past 10 years.
So when the centrists warn us that we cannot afford health care reform, check their facts—and ask why they prefer to spend tax dollars on wasteful wars and corporate subsidies rather than health care for every American.