On our drive across America, my son and I have spotted spiffy white vans emblazoned with phrases like "ObamaCare will raise your taxes" and "ObamaCare will put bureaucrats in charge of your health." Just outside Omaha we drove close enough to take a peek at the driver, who looked as dutifully professional as the spanking new van he was driving.
This isn't grass roots. It's Astroturf. The vans carry the logo "Americans for Prosperity," one of the Washington front groups orchestrating the fight against universal health. They're using Congress's August recess to heckle Democratic representatives when they meet with their constituents, stage erszatz local anti-universal health rallies, and fill home-town media with carefully crafted, market-tested messages demonizing healthcare reform.
The Republican Party's fingerprints are all over this. FreedomWorks, another group now Astroturfing its way around America, is chaired by former House Republican Leader Dick Armey. Texas Republican Pete Sessions, who chairs the National Republican Campaign Committee, says the days of civil town halls are "now over.” Key Republican funders are forking out big bucks. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, whose ties to the GOP are legion, announced in June it would "develop a sweeping national advocacy campaign encompassing advertising, education, political activities, new media and grassroots organizing" to battle universal health and other Democratic initiatives.
The Republicans' goal isn't ideological. It's power. Republicans smell 1994 all over again. That's when they defeated Clinton's healthcare plan -- and in doing so convinced large numbers of Americans that Clinton and the Democrats couldn't be trusted. This enabled the Republicans to retake control of Congress. From then on, they blocked Clinton's agenda. They even gave themselves a shot at the presidency in 1996.
Who can blame them for wanting to re-create 1994? Republicans have no other strategy. They can't attack Obama personally because he's just too popular. They've been incapable of coming up with their own plan for healthcare reform. The biggest healthcare interest groups -- the AMA, private insurers and Big Pharma -- have publicly backed the major healthcare initiatives coming from congressional Democrats (although, I suspect, are quietly supporting the Republicans' Astroturf blitz). Their "tea parties" in April were a flop. Their poll numbers are awful. Their major loudmouths -- Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannnity and Dick Cheney -- are not exactly attractive to most Americans. Their biggest nightmare, Sarah Palin, is already on the campaign trail for 2012.
But this Republican strategy will fail. 2010 will not be 1994. There's too much momentum behind universal healthcare right now to stop it. Yet the Republicans' fake grass-roots campaign may cause some Democratic lawmakers to become even more nervous about universal healthcare than they already are, or at least give them an excuse to duck when it comes time to vote in September. The result will be a watered-down set of reforms that still leave millions of Americans uninsured and don't slow healthcare costs. This is why Obama has to fight for this so hard over the August recess, why he has to be far more specific about what he wants in the bill, and why he can't afford any more diversions -- like the beer summit, or economic advisors who seem to open the door to middle-class tax increases.