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How Democrats Can Overcome Their Self-Defeating Cynicism

Democrats are at their most inspiring when they’re pushing actual policies. The public option is a good place to start.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

You know what’s missing from the 2016 presidential election? Issues. You may have heard of them, the things that politicians are elected to turn into legislative form and enact, in between welcoming sports teams to the White House and pardoning the turkey at Thanksgiving.

Issues have been surgically removed from the political bloodstream. A personality-obsessed television media doesn’t care about them and wouldn’t know how to explain them if they did. Data journalism, the hot new trend, is too preoccupied with polls and electoral simulations to bother with the true substance of elections. Hillary Clinton has on occasion tried to reset the focus back on issues—her campaign is a giant policy paper-generation machine—but the political neutron bomb known as Donald Trump has the entire country swinging its head to track who he’s insulted or who’s insulted him.

Meanwhile, partisan liberal media runs down Trump more than it discusses its own candidate. And the liberal punditocracy, newly enamored with political science, has become so certain that presidents cannot achieve their goals in a fractured system with multiple veto points that it has wrung hope out of politics, presuming that public opinion is static. Some have even argued that support for Bernie Sanders was entirely identity-based and had nothing to do with his ideas, to a degree that writes voter intention completely out of the story. The dominant theme of modern American politics, driven by virtually everyone in the media, is cynicism. It’s no surprise that the most cynical candidate America has seen in recent memory can press the advantage.

Democrats do not win elections that resemble attempts to set a Guinness Book World Record for mudslinging. They don’t win when they fail to define a platform or even a point of view. They win when they actually talk about what they want to accomplish in office, and explain why their ideas would be better for the country than their opponents’ ideas.

Democrats in the Senate took a tentative step in that direction on Thursday. Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon introduced a resolution calling for a public health insurance option available to every American. This resolution simply says that everyone should have an option to purchase insurance from the government; a legislative vehicle will be introduced next year.

Merkley’s 27 co-sponsors span the Senate caucus, from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on the left flank, to Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin in the leadership. If Democrats win the Senate, Patty Murray of Washington would be the likely chair of the committee that would oversee this proposal, and she’s on board as well. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee and several allies, including labor, are organizing for broad support of the resolution, hoping to attract millions of supporters.

The momentum for the public option has been building for months. Hillary Clinton and then President Barack Obama came out in favor of it, after a succession of bad news about lack of competition in the insurance exchanges. The public option would help induce that competition, a benchmark that competitors in private insurance would need to mind. It would lower costs throughout the system, by using the clout of the government to bargain down the cost of provider treatment. In 2013, the Congressional Budget Office found that adding a public option to the exchanges would save the government $158 billion over ten years, while lowering premiums 7 to 8 percent.

You can gripe that, after a primary animated by Sanders’s call for a single-payer system, settling for public option, a common feature in Democratic health care plans before Obama’s first term, is puzzling. But until this year, the public option was invisible, as was really any talk about health care at all, outside of knee-jerk defenses of Obamacare. “I’m glad to see my baby resurrected,” said Jacob Hacker, a political science professor at Yale known as the “father of the public option,” on a conference call announcing the resolution Thursday.

In their defensive crouch, Democrats have forgotten to explain why they consider it important that “no family have the American dream ripped out from under them because they can’t afford medical care,” as Merkley said on the call. They forget to explain why health care ought to be a right for every American, not a privilege only available to those who can buy it at a high price.

This was actually the logic of the Sanders campaign, and a reason for its unlikely success. Contrary to the political science pros, it was his ideas, and more to the point his willingness to say them, that animated his candidacy. It also pushed Clinton to outline a bolder agenda than she might have been comfortable with in Sanders’s absence. When the Democratic primary pitted ideas against one another, rather than amplifying criticisms, it let Americans know what Democrats stand for.

The bloodless technocracy that has ruled the Democratic Party has forgotten how to inspire the body politic. After riding a wave of enthusiasm to power in 2008, the last couple midterms and even Obama’s 2012 campaign were nervy exercises in protecting the tentative gains Democrats had made—and seemed half-embarrassed by. Democrats too often define themselves by who they oppose rather than their own principles. Not only is this self-defeating for a party that promises activist government, it makes governing itself harder down the road.

While guaranteeing health coverage for all Americans would be ideal, the public option isn’t a terrible place to start. More importantly, it allows Democrats to exercise the muscle of highlighting a problem and detailing how government intervention can fix it. This familiar process should be akin to riding a bike. “Senator Harkin said that the Affordable Care Act was like a starter home,” said Jacob Hacker. “The public option is a crucial addition to make that home much more livable.”

In a presidential election defined by clutter, the only way to cut through it is with something tangible and substantive. As Rick Perlstein once wrote, liberals used to explain their worldview in three words: “Freedom plus groceries.” Armed with just symbolism or tribalism, devoid of anything approaching a plan you can actually explain, liberalism withers.