The Strange Career of the Public Option

How a modest idea started a big fight

Alex Wong / Getty

Reid, center, wants a Senate bill with a public option but may not have the votes to overcome a filibuster.

For all the fury it has provoked on both sides of the health-care debate, it's easy to forget that the idea of a public option was something of an afterthought when presidential candidate Barack Obama first designed his health-care-reform plan. It didn't merit so much as a mention in the 3,636-word speech he gave laying out his vision on health care in May 2007, and it rarely came up in the primary and general-election battles that followed.

The public option had been kicking around for a while, however, in policy-wonk circles. Giving the uninsured an opportunity to purchase coverage through a...

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