This may hurt a bit

Can an overdose of TV ads while Congress leaves town help save Obama's healthcare plan?

By Mike Madden
Published July 31, 2009 2:31PM (UTC)
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Screen shot from an ad run by Health Care For America Now!

The fever pitch of politics usually subsides a little when Congress clears out of town in August. But by the time lawmakers return to the Capitol in early September to pick up where they left off on healthcare reform legislation, they may be wishing they'd never gone back to their home districts at all.

With no hope that either the House or Senate will vote on reform before the lawmakers leave, supporters and opponents alike -- from President Obama to the Tea Party crew -- will be pestering members of Congress all month via every form of media to try to get an edge in the debate this fall. TV and radio ad blitzes that have already hit $15 million a week will only be stepped up, and the foot soldiers are coming. Chances are, no lawmaker would have made it through a town meeting without hearing about healthcare anyway, but just in case, pressure groups on both sides say they'll be sending people to events to push their message.


The delay of a healthcare vote has been spun by Republicans as a sign that reform is on its way to a slow, painful death. But the August break doesn't necessarily have to work against Obama. For progressives, it might be a chance to reset a debate that's started to shift away from them. Conservative Blue Dog Democrats in the House and their ideological counterparts in the Senate have wrung concessions out of Democratic leaders this week that threaten to gut what many liberals see as the centerpiece of reform: a government-funded public insurance option that competes with private insurers, helping to hold costs and premiums down. Liberals say payback will start when they get outside the Beltway.

"These members can expect to go home and see advertisements if they have made themselves a central character" in the debate, said Jacki Schechner, a spokeswoman for Health Care for America Now, a coalition of unions and other progressive groups. HCAN said Thursday that the deal that the Blue Dogs cut to let healthcare legislation move out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee wasn't acceptable, and that HCAN expects any final legislation to include a strong public insurance plan. "The hope is that members of Congress will come back [to Washington] with an extremely strong sense of obligation to get this done, that they will come back having spent a month home hearing the vast majority of their constituents saying, 'No more delay. Get it done.'"

Both sides are already spending heavily on TV ads, though the Campaign Media and Analysis Group reports that supporters of reform have put about twice as much money into commercials as opponents. A branch of the Democratic National Committee, Organizing for America, has been running ads targeting conservative Democrats in states like North Dakota, Arkansas, Indiana, Louisiana and Nebraska, as well as nationally. A progressive reform group, Families USA, has teamed up with PhRMA, the drug industry's lobbying group, to run a new ad campaign that revives the Harry and Louise characters who helped kill reform 15 years ago. HCAN and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees are running ads targeting Republicans who oppose Obama, trying to make them into allies of private insurance companies. The campaign aims at Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, as well as House members from Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Washington, Louisiana and Virginia -- including Rep. Eric Cantor, the GOP's second-ranking House leader. has run an ad accusing the GOP of opposing reform for purely political reasons, as well as radio ads pushing moderate Democratic senators to support a public option.


Progressive groups think they can keep the pressure up on Blue Dogs, moderate Republicans -- like Maine's senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins -- and conservative Democratic senators in states like Montana, North Dakota and Nebraska. For instance, Montana's Max Baucus, the Finance Committee chairman, is leading the secretive negotiations in the Senate that threaten the public option. So the Service Employees International Union is sending an ambulance to drive around the state in the middle of August.

On the other side, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has also launched a multimillion-dollar campaign -- including TV and print ads -- in Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, Maine, and North Carolina, opposing any public insurance plan. "Say no to the government-run plan," the ads say. The GOP's House campaign arm is also planning to run ads targeting 80 Democrats for supporting a "government takeover" of the healthcare system.

The stakes for the summer push are high. Polls are starting to show that constituents may not share liberal groups' desire to pass the legislation making its way through Congress. A Gallup Poll this week found voters think reform would improve healthcare overall, but that it might make their own care worse. A Pew Research Center Poll found the more voters had heard about the debate, the less they liked the reform proposals Congress is considering.


Democratic strategists think the White House and healthcare reform supporters might need to recalibrate their message in order to swing momentum their way. "We came out of the box talking too much about the uninsured and not enough about the benefits for the insured," said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, at a briefing this week organized by the Christian Science Monitor. "So much of the debate is about national budgets instead of family budgets. We need to get it out of the conference room tables and into kitchen tables."

The administration says Obama will keep hitting the road during August to sell the benefits of reform. To hear the White House tell it, those include lower premium costs for everyone, less hassle from insurance companies over things like pre-existing conditions, and the ability to stay insured even if you lose your job or change your job. In two town halls this week, Obama focused more on why reform would help everyone deal with rising healthcare costs, not just the uninsured.


"One of the biggest challenges is breaking through to people who have insurance and are relatively satisfied [but] have concerns about the system," said Anna Greenberg, another Democratic pollster. "That is starting to happen and has to continue to happen."

Republicans, meanwhile, think the recess will be just fine for them. Though supporters of reform are reportedly outspending opponents, the GOP takes comfort in the recent poll numbers. "The more [Obama] talks about this, the less people support it," House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio said at another Christian Science Monitor briefing. "They're deeply skeptical about the government's involvement." Republican allies will bring their own pressure to bear. The conservative activists who brought the world the April 15 Tea Parties will be holding rallies throughout the month to remind their fellow Americans that Obama's proposal is basically socialism -- though it's not clear exactly how well that message will work. After all, the same polls that show voters are skeptical of the reform plan also show Republicans in Congress remain less popular than Democrats, and well behind Obama's personal popularity, even though he's slipped lately.

The media's relentless focus on the process of passing the healthcare legislation the past few weeks doesn't seem to have done the reform plans any favors. Never has the old saying that you wouldn't want to see either sausage or laws get made seemed more true. The best hope for reformers over the August recess might just be that the hour-by-hour cable news deathwatch for the legislation will fade. "There's a lot of noise right now," said Schechner, of HCAN. Maybe turning the volume down on Washington -- but keeping the heat up on Congress -- will help.

Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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