Did Obama secretly kill the public option?

The question is still an important one for many liberals. The claim lives on to this day, and is still seen as perhaps the clearest evidence from Obama’s first term that liberals ultimately can’t trust him on their core priorities, and won’t be able to trust him going forward.

But did he? A close look suggests there’s no evidence that he did.

The latest version of this assertion comes today in a Drew Westen Op ed. He claims as outright fact that even as pundits endlessly debated the public option, in reality “the president had cut a deal with health care industry executives to block it the year before.”

Westin links to what appears to be confirmation for this story, and it’s been repeated by others. However, if you follow the links the story starts to dissolve — after a couple levels of assertions that this “deal” has been proven, it turns out to be built on some very murky stuff.

The background: There were certainly two significant deals that the White House made with interest groups. One was with the drug companies, to leave re-importation out of health care reform. The second, with the hospitals, limited how much ACA would cost them. But some liberals believed that the White House was also out to get the public option from the beginning. This first arose when problem comes when one HuffPo blogger decided that a David Kirkpatrick story in the New York Times and a later Kirkpatrick interview on MSNBC proved it. It’s those two items that the links trail lead back to.

However, Kirkpatrick, as I read it, only confirmed that there was a deal (on costs) with the hospitals, not that it included the public option. He wrote in the original story that there was a belief that a public option would not wind up in the bill. But that was more an assessment of where the votes were going to fall than part of any agreement. There was nothing there to confirm a deal on the public option.

What’s more, multiple Senate Democrats talked openly about being constrained by the reimportation and hospital costs deals at the time, even as they continued to publicly support the public option. In other words, these Senators confirmed that a deal had been made, and acted accordingly — but they did not act as if the public option had been nixed. There were no signs that any of these Dems thought the deal contained any provision killing the public option. Only when the votes weren’t there for it in the full Senate was the public option finally pulled.

Now, it’s possible that the public statements of moderate Democrats were all part of an elaborate rouse orchestrated by the White House to publicly talk up the public option while they privately knew there was a deal to kill it. But that’s very difficult to believe, and no matter what people say, it hasn’t even been close to proven. A much more logical explanation is that there was no deal on the public option, and that it died because there just were not 60 Democrats willing to support it.

There simply was no reported deal to kill the public option. If you want to blame someone for killing the public option, blame marginal Democrats, who opposed it, and marginal Republicans (especially Olympia Snowe), who initially backed a version of the bill with the public option before deciding that pretty much all of Obamacare was unconstitutional. There’s no reason to believe that Barack Obama sold out liberals on this one.

CORRECTION: The Senate Finance Committee bill, which is the version Olympia Snowe voted for, did not contain a public option; it contained Kent Conrad’s “co-op” idea. However, the larger point stands; Snowe did propose a triggered public option which Democrats rejected, and earlier in the process expressed openness to a public option of some kind, before deciding the whole thing was unconstitutional.