Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Editorial: Why Aren’t We Winning On Healthcare Reform?

Dave at WAYLA ponders why Democrats have been losing the healthcare debate. Please note that these views do not necessarily represent the opinions of others at WAYLA. Possible rebuttals to this post to come.

As it was mentioned last week, healthcare has long been a winning issue for Democrats. Americans are rightfully dissatisfied with their healthcare system and they’ve long (and still) trusted Democrats to come up with solutions.

A recent Gallup poll indicates that as the economy is improving - or at least falling among the issues Americans are concerned about - the healthcare issue is rapidly rising among the public’s concerns.

I think it’s prudent to say most Americans aren’t falling for the claims coming from conservative pundits that the United States has the best healthcare system in the world.

Except over the past month support for reform seems to have declined. Confusion over whether or not to support a reform bill has risen 17% since July - most of that coming from people that once supported reform - and now the firm pro-reformers and anti-reformers are neck-and-neck in the polls.

How is that possible?

Political consultant Peter Daou wrote for the Huffington Post yesterday, and has some interesting insight as to why the conservative view is building momentum:

“Setting aside strategic errors by the Democrats (and there have been several in this fight), just look at how reform opponents have outgunned the White House using town halls, cable news, newspaper editorials, Freepers, Drudge, talk radio and chain emails. If I close my eyes, I'm transported back to my days on the Kerry campaign and the summer of Swift Boats, Purple Heart Band-Aids and rightwing attack machine antics. It's as though a half decade of technological advances disappeared in the blink of an eye. Forget Facebook and Twitter, it's all about Fox and MSNBC and CNN replaying images of angry protesters at town hall meetings railing against 'government takeovers.' It's about Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh spreading fear and fury. It's about anonymous emails zipping across the country, distorting the facts and sowing confusion…

Paradoxically, the attempts by Democrats to counter all this by sending emails to Obama's list and creating campaign-style fact-checking websites seem almost quaint by comparison. When a woman at a town hall spoke about ‘awakening a sleeping giant,’ she may as well have been alluding to the old media tools and techniques that have been dismissed by pundits and tech evangelists as anachronistic in the Internet age. Simply put, despite volumes of cyber-ink about the left's online prowess, and despite Democrats controlling the White House and Congress, the right can apparently dominate the national conversation using the same outlets they relied on five and ten years ago.”

But we beat all that in 2008! Barack Obama managed to overcome email rumors, conservative pundit fear-mongering, and all the other right-wing old-media tactics! What’s so different now?

The difference is there isn’t an electoral campaign, and because of that, all the progressive activism that put Obama over the top has come to a stand-still.

Sure, Obama may be using all sorts of New Media techniques just like he did during the campaign, but it wasn’t New Media that won him that election - it was the energized volunteers who knocked on doors and made phone calls. These are the most effective ways to communicate with voters, and - as WAYLA has said time and time again - Obama’s campaign was able to contact a whopping 37% more voters than the McCain campaign.

So why aren’t Democrats going door-to-door to talk to their neighbors about the benefits of healthcare reform? After all, wouldn’t that be the best way to solidify public approval of such legislative action?

This is where I can’t help but wish that Howard Dean was still Chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Not only did he give the party’s activists energy, but he developed some of the most clever strategy imaginable.

While the GOP stayed vested in their 50%-plus-one (no exceptions) mindset, Dean pushed a 50-state strategy for his own party. In the short term it probably wasted resources on races where Democrats couldn’t win, but there was a long term goal behind it. By setting up races in every state, the Democratic Party could lay down the foundation for future success with campaign infrastructure and a network of donors and volunteers for future races. It was often criticized, but there’s evidence that it worked.

Yet the Dean brainchild that comes to mind most right now - however - is something that was called the Neighborhood Leadership Program. Neighborhood Leaders would go out into their community and identify Democrats who might want to get involved with the party. One of the benefits was it would give the Democrats a heads up in getting to know their neighbors and becoming friendly with them. It wasn’t just a campaign-year thing - it was a long-term program.

At the time I first learned about it, I must admit, it seemed fairly unnecessary. Why put volunteers through a year-round task of talking to neighbors about political issues? Now, I’m beginning to see the purpose.

When I looked at the DNC’s website today I couldn’t find anything about the Neighborhood Leadership Program. Then I visited my state party’s website, and could only find this page explaining that activists could call their members of Congress and go to town hall meetings. Just a year ago, I would have been able to sign up on either site as a Neighborhood Leader in a matter of seconds.

Evidently, that’s all changed. And now it appears that astroturf organizations are ready to not just kill healthcare reform, but climate change legislation as well. So far they’ve been getting away with it because there’s been an absence of progressive organizing.

So what happened?

Could it somehow be influenced by that old rivalry (driven by differences of opinion on strategy) between Dean and now-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel? Could it be that the current Chairman - Governor Tim Kaine (D-VA) - is too busy governing his state to successfully fill the shoes of his predecessor?

Could it be a lack of initiative on the part of Organizing for America? Many Democratic activists say that OFA - the remnants of the Obama campaign - isn’t actually organizing.

I keep hearing that Democrats are just too “burned-out” to make the sort of effort that conservatives are making right now. To some extent it makes sense: now that we’re in control, we’re not fighting the power like we used to - the Republicans are. But the more I think about it, the more I can’t help but believe that’s just a bad excuse.

We pointed out earlier this month that the GOP is proportionally more motivated than the Democratic Party. But guess what? There are more Democrats out there! In fact, there are about just as many energized Democrats in this country as there are energized Republicans at the moment.

In the end I just think it comes down to leadership. Ever since Dean left, there seems to be a real vacuum in the Democratic Party.

Barack Obama told us in his victory speech that the election itself was not the change everybody was seeking, just the opportunity for change. Yes, he won, but he told supporters to continue the work they were doing as volunteers for the campaign - to continue to organize for change.

I believe that progressives are ready to do so. They’ve wanted healthcare reform for so long, and they don’t want astroturfers to kill it. But it’s going to take a little organization on top before we can organize on the bottom. Otherwise the prospects for healthcare reform look pretty dismal.

UPDATE: OFA is having an online "strategy meeting" with President Obama Thursday, according to an email sent out today by former campaign manager David Plouffe. You can RSVP, submit a question, and maybe just find out what the strategy is for winning the healthcare debate.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A Couple of quick thoughts.

Progressives/Obama have the best polling and research on this issue ever. The research told us over a year ago that in order to succeed in reform a plan needed to be pushed through Congress quickly. All research showed that the minute a plan was developed, it would be open season on the details - which can be easily misrepresented to scare different constituencies. Remember most Americans have health care that they like, it is the cost inflation and worries about keeping it that scare them. If they become more scared of change than they are angry at the current state of affairs the harder it is to hold public support for reform.

Thus when the Dems could not get their "plan" passed before August, the hurdle become higher. The right has tapped into anti-government types who were always going to oppose any increased role of government. They were mobilized by Palin last year and have taken their show on tour at this August's town halls.

The irrational fear raised over details of plan has had its expected impact on older folks and independents, in addition to increasing polarization among GOP supporters.

Also, the right's opposition taps into a core anti-government value of its base that is under attack in health care reform. The left's base really wants single-payer and is less clear about the benefits of this "polled and politically calculated" Obama approach that blends private and public plans. This has a dampening effect on the support from progressive base that would naturally counter right wing, anti-government types.

Ultimately, Democrats are going to have to LEAD on this one if it is going to pass. They choose to wait until the Fall. If they fail on health care they all will pay a price next November - remember 1994.

Also, why must Democrats go door-to-door to be effective when GOP is not using a large scale door campaign. Plus, OFI is organizing volunteer canvasses in WI. Also Citizen Action is canvassing 5 days a week on this issue in WI.