Monday, August 10, 2009

How Can the Democrats Still Win On Healthcare?

Since we first posted on the disruptive town hall meetings back on Tuesday, the healthcare debate has only become more surreal - with arguments becoming more absurd and dialogue actually exploding into fist fights.

For the past few years, healthcare has really been a major selling-point for Democrats - it helped them retake Congress in 2006 and expand their majority - and win the White House - in 2008.

But now we’re looking forward to 2010 and suddenly healthcare seems to be a weak selling point. Polls show that Americans still want healthcare reform - including a public option - but they don’t believe Democrats can pull it off.

The big reason has been the deficit.

Recent polls find that the ideas of the Democratic healthcare bills are still popular - for example, voters support a public option. Yet they also believe that the current legislation making its way through Congress will increase the size of the deficit - and they aren’t willing to support it if it does that.

Then there is the issue of quality.

In recent weeks, we’ve heard more and more absurd claims about what would happen to the quality of healthcare under a Democratic-led reform package. Former GOP Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin posted this on Facebook last week:

"The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil."

Liberals love to point to such claims and laugh about how preposterous they are. In their defense, of course, these arguments are preposterous - the non-partisan watchdog recently called such euthanasia claims flat-out “false.”

But they’re doing the job. A recent New York Times poll finds that 69% of Americans are worried that the current healthcare reform bills would result in a loss of quality for them personally if passed.

And as the New York Times pollsters put it “over all, the poll portrays a nation torn by conflicting impulses and confusion.”

"In one finding, 75 percent of respondents said they were concerned that the cost of their own health care would eventually go up if the government did not create a system of providing health care for all Americans. But in another finding, 77 percent said they were concerned that the cost of health care would go up if the government did create such a system."

And when we look at the Republican arguments closer (increased deficits, loss of quality) and the impact they’re having (fear and confusion) we see a familiar trend: these are exactly the same circumstances that brought healthcare reform to fail in 1994.

By the way, it was the 1994 elections that gave rise to 12 years of GOP power in Congress. If the Democrats fail on healthcare reform again, they seriously risk losing a high number of seats in Congress.

So how can the Democrats still win on this issue?

So far, the Democrats have done a poor job addressing the points that Republicans are raising.

First they must address the issue of deficits. President Obama has repeatedly said that the bill he signs must be budget-neutral - in other words, it cannot increase the size of the federal deficit.

In fact, many Democrats occasionally point out that healthcare costs are a huge part of the deficit as it stands - and they’re right. To bring a little Econ 101 into the discussion, a public option would create a positive shift in the supply curve for health insurance - subsequently lowering prices.

And lower prices mean lower costs for the government. Currently the government faces the major challenge of paying for Medicare and Medicaid while healthcare costs are so high. Because these are nondiscretionary entitlement programs, the government must pay for them - and the most they can do to reduce the deficit here is to pay lower costs.

While that may not be enough to balance the budget, it will be a significant start. Democrats must convey one rather important point: without such cost-cutting reform, it will be impossible to balance the federal budget.

They also need to better address the fear of a loss of quality. The Democrats should stress that their plan would foster competition, thereby increasing the prevalence of preventative care - and that would, in turn, increase quality of healthcare.

Many have been making another important point that should be stressed on this note: while Americans are paying more for healthcare than any other country, we aren’t exactly healthier. Several developed countries with government options as well as countries with strictly nationalized health plans have significantly longer life expectancy rates than the U.S.

Of course, there will always be claims about forced euthanasia and the heartless bureaucrats of “Obama’s ‘death panel’” - but by turning attention to such outrageous arguments, Democrats can actually help Republicans continue to marginalize themselves.

Just look at some of the claims Republicans have made in the past week that liberal activists can point to…

From Minnesota Family Research Council president Tom Prichard:

“Some may ask what does God have to do with our health care system. For one, He’s created the government as an institution in society to do certain things. When we reject His design for government, in a sense, we’re rejecting Him.

In Obama’s worldview, our trust is in government not in God. A denial of how God designed and created our economic and social systems to actually work in the real world. The result? The abysmal failure of government control of health care in socialist models.”

Another right-wing activist group, Americans for Truth, recently sent out an email alert asking “Will ObamaCare Turn into Taxpayer-funded ‘Tranny-Care’?” - suggesting that the public option will be used (maybe or maybe not primarily) for sexual reassignment surgery.

Or we can look to more image-based attacks from the right. Rush Limbaugh recently stirred up controversy when he compared the Obama healthcare logo - featuring a caduceus - to Nazi images.

Some are already picking up on the importance of pointing out such radical attacks. In today’s edition of USA Today, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer wrote a criticism of the methods used by reform opponents:

“…it is now evident that an ugly campaign is underway not merely to misrepresent the health insurance reform legislation, but to disrupt public meetings and prevent members of Congress and constituents from conducting a civil dialogue. These tactics have included hanging in effigy one Democratic member of Congress in Maryland and protesters holding a sign displaying a tombstone with the name of another congressman in Texas, where protesters also shouted "Just say no!" drowning out those who wanted to hold a substantive discussion.”

And liberal bloggers can be some of the best sources of counter-attack - citing on-the-ground accounts of conservative bullying. Wisconsin’s Blogging Blue posted this threat sent to the SEIU after some its union members got in a scuffle with conservative activists last week:

"You socialist f—s have the nerve to say stop the violence at the town hall meetings when they weren’t violent until you p—ies showed up because your n—– leader obama said to?????? When we have ours in Racine, Wi, I want you there. I want one of your little b—– to put his hands on this Marine. I want one of you to look or talk to me wrong. I’ll be the last thing your ignorant faux body guards will remember for a very long time. You can f—ing guarantee that."

As the blogger jokingly writes: “nothing says ‘honest debate’ like foul language, threats of violence, and racial epithets.”

Still others are exposing conservative “grassroots” activists as astroturfers and GOP operatives. posted this local news report from Wisconsin over the weekend:

As we said on Tuesday, only time will tell if conservative activists can build momentum towards defeating healthcare with their antics - but some suggest that it could backfire.

If Democrats begin to address the claims that are scarring and confusing Americans while keeping up the pressure on activists - exposing them as either fringe radicals or astroturfers - chances are it very well could.

UPDATE: The White House is catching on. A new page at directly addresses conservative criticisms of the reform plans with YouTube videos of the president's policy staff debunking the myths in the debate. Below is one of the several examples posted there:

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