It looks like the pundits are going to have to find a new third rail for the American political scene.

For those of you whose acquaintance with mass transit may be limited or non-existent, the third rail is the rail on subway tracks that carries the electrical power and has the ability to fry you crisper than something you can buy at KFC if you happen to touch it.

So, for many years the expression has been used to identify an issue that would supposedly incinerate a politician if he or she were to come out in favor of it while the public was supposedly opposed.

But as society changes, so does the third rail. At one time, voting rights for women was such an issue. For a long time, gay rights had the distinction (and, indeed, the issue of gay marriage still does, to a degree).

But the ultimate third rail issue, at least for as long as I’ve been covering this business, has been universal health care, otherwise known by its House Un-American Activities Committee-sanctioned moniker, “socialized medicine.”

Just ask Hillary Clinton, who for years after the health care debacle of the early Clinton administration looked somewhat extra crispy around the edges, as if she was still sporting the scars of contact with the third rail.

My, my, how things have changed.

So many politicians are talking up and talking about universal health care that this third rail now seems to be the victim of a power blackout.

It’s funny how a few things–nearly consistent double-digit rate increases in health insurance costs over a decade or more, the mushrooming of the uninsured population, the utter fear that grips people at the possibility of being without health insurance, and the way health insurance is squeezing other employer-provided benefits–have deprived this once lethal issue of its power to annihilate.

Last month, the New York Times reported (there Piontek goes again!) that “a majority of Americans say the federal government should guarantee health insurance to every American, especially children, and are willing to pay higher taxes to do it.”

Right before Congress went on vacation, Rep. Pete Stark introduced a universal health care bill.

John Edwards has made a universal health care plan the centerpiece of his presidential campaign and has come out with a detailed plan for how to do it. This in and of itself signals a huge change because most politicians are terrified of getting into the nitty-gritty of proposals lest their opponents seize on minute details and blow them out of proportion.

Barack Obama has been making noises about the need for universal health care, and I think we can assume that Hillary is still carrying a torch for the issue.

And let’s not forget about what’s been happening in the states. Over on the GOP side, it was none other than Mitt Romney who, as governor of Massachusetts, put together with the Democratic legislature a universal health plan. On the primary campaign trail he has not been too vocal about it, but assuming he gets the party’s nod as presidential candidate, I think we can expect that he will start to trumpet the issue and his accomplishment.

What all this talk and activity shows is that the issue has reached a tipping point in terms of having power to strike fear in people’s hearts. Anxiety has made people willing to consider tradeoffs that once would have been verboten.

It’s only a matter of time until universal health care becomes something viewed as inevitable–as something we can’t afford not to have. I don’t think we’re going to have to wait too long for that time to come.

Steve Piontek

Editor-in-Chief