Lessons for lefties from Obama’s healthcare fight


by Sunny
21st September, 2009 at 4:03 pm    

1: Public opinion can be shifted. Think of strategies and stunts that could do that. The atmosphere started with the public fairly positive to Obama’s plans. But the wingnut Republicans started shouting at meetings and talking about ‘death panels’. At this point most liberals though – hah, this will never work. The public will see through how absurd this is‘. Wrong. People thought ‘no smoke without fire’ instead, and public opinion started shifting against Obama.

2. Facts don’t always work. Emotion does. And the media always follow a circus. Exploit that to your advantage.
Following on from above – the left thought that the public would never buy the idea of ‘death panels’ or the people who turned up to townhalls with assault rifles. But people are influenced by their fellow citizens getting angry over something. And the media follows the circus – with the result that angry townhalls dominated coverage, and people started thinking all of America was angry at Obama’s healthcare. Result – public opinion shifts.

The point isn’t that you push lies, like Sarah Palin has done. The point is that thinking that just by debunking right-wing nonsense will do the job is not good enough. The media plays the game of ‘journalistic equivalence’, which means that a lying Republican will be offered equal space to someone debunking it. People assume that both are simply two sides of a debate, and they’ll believe with their guts than facts.

3. Don’t defend the status quo even if you want to retain it. Go on the offensive. Obama should have said that healthcare is broken, and that insurance companies were fleecing people. He started off by telling people they could keep what they had, instead of telling them they were paying too much for healthcare. Bad strategy.

4. Discipline on your side is necessary, and so is a clear message. Keep repeating the basic message. Those who want nuance can find it.
The Democrat Blue Dogs should have been taken outside and shot. I kid, only half-heartedly. If the bill doesn’t get passed it will be thanks to conservative Democrats who don’t realise it will kill their re-election chances too. Obama should have forced discipline from day one rather than letting everyone pile in.


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  1. pickles

    New blog post: Lessons for lefties from Obama’s healthcare fight http://www.pickledpolitics.com/archives/5958




  1. Leon — on 21st September, 2009 at 4:37 pm  

    Lesson 5

    Those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it.

    Seriously are the left in the US idiots or what? Anyone over the age of 30 and interested in politics must remember what Clinton went through. Why Obama’s team didn’t expect this fight to pan out like this is beyond me…

  2. MaidMarian — on 21st September, 2009 at 4:38 pm  

    Not totally sure about this Sunny. The simple reason that US healthcare had not been reformed (whatever that means) previously was that past presidents had been able to take the hint.

    Put another way – Americans across the political spectrum just do not want to pay for healthcare for poor Americans. There was not much more to it than that.

    I would guess that the average American is aware that healthcare in the US is far from ideal and that insurance companies are not an efficient way of delivering health. That does not however translate into support for a public option.

    Obama made his stand on the wrong issue and got burned. It is that simple.

    There is a quite easy test. ‘If the bill doesn’t get passed it will be thanks to conservative Democrats who don’t realise it will kill their re-election chances too.’ So support on the left faded, but this did not seem to translate into an electoral Republican surge. In other words, those complaining are not all Republicans – they are Americans concerned about the Obama plan.

    The more interesting question is whether Obama pressed on or whether this came from the staff.

  3. Audrey — on 21st September, 2009 at 4:56 pm  

    President Obama’s heath care promises won’t be kept. Costs will rise exponentially, NOT fall. Therefore, our taxes will be the ones to pay for it. We need to support the goal of covering all individuals through private health insurance. We are NOT prepared to turn our health system over to the government.
    http://www.friendsoftheuschamber.com/issues/index.cfm?ID=300 .

  4. Naadir Jeewa — on 21st September, 2009 at 5:12 pm  

    Lesson 5 is too obviously read through a British parliamentary lens.

    That presidents do not exert much discipline over the legislature is a key feature of the US political system, and presidential systems as a whole.

    It isn’t discipline that’s causing problems, it’s hegemony. Movement Conservatism has a hegemony over the GOP, and the Democrats have no such ideological hegemony. The silver lining is that Movement Conservatism is imploding as an elite ideology even as it becomes the beginning of the rise of a new brand of fascist eliminationism, with the result that the GOP is intellectually dead, for now.

  5. Sunny — on 21st September, 2009 at 5:12 pm  

    Americans across the political spectrum just do not want to pay for healthcare for poor Americans. There was not much more to it than that.

    Oh really. That’s why they elected him despite that being one of his key policies… right?

    The public opinion was there. It turned against them because of some very bad strategy MM.

  6. Shatterface — on 21st September, 2009 at 5:21 pm  

    Lesson 6, if you accept Lesson 2 then you might as well hand the country over to the far Right and have done with it.

    Fuck the Enlightenment, lets abandon reason altogether. Politics is just for those with the biggest bogeyman.

  7. Sunny — on 21st September, 2009 at 5:35 pm  

    You live in some serious cuckooland if you think politics was ever driven by rational politics and people paying attention to policies shatterface.

    Naadir – good point.

  8. cjcjc — on 21st September, 2009 at 5:40 pm  

    They sound like good lessons for all occasions and parties in fact.

  9. Cauldron — on 21st September, 2009 at 6:00 pm  

    People of all stripes become small-c conservatives when anyone suggests messing with the method of healthcare with which they are familiar. In the US, those with healthcare often cannot imagine any alternative to the current crackpot, fraudulent system designed to generate massive over-consumption.

    Likewise in the UK, any private sector involvement in the NHS is politically taboo, despite plenty of evidence that government provision of anything is hopelessly incompetent.

    So, the only way to affect change is gradually and from the centre. Obama should have gone for more modest reforms. He wasn’t forceful enough in taking on Democrat special interest groups (e.g. medical malpractice lawyers) and he over-reached with the public option.

    The key story here is that Obama is turning out to be a weak president, completely beholden to a corrupt Congress. As with Clinton, the best thing that could happen to him would be to lose the mid-term elections since America only seems to take sensible decisions when the legislature and executive are in different hands.

  10. Rumbold — on 21st September, 2009 at 8:19 pm  

    Lesson 6: Come up with a better plan rather than just promising to fund it with some vague tax. Point out that the unions were among those most opposed to reform, because their members benefit from the current system.

  11. Clay Barham — on 21st September, 2009 at 9:08 pm  

    Democrats were the first Libertarians under Jefferson to Cleveland, and now reflect the views of Rousseau to Marx, as described in the new book CHANGING FACES OF DEMOCRATS under Clay Barham books at http://www.amazon.com or the author’s website http://www.claysamerica.com.

  12. MaidMarian — on 21st September, 2009 at 11:21 pm  

    Sunny (5) – ‘That’s why they elected him despite that [healthcare reform] being one of his key policies… right?’

    Well… It would appear so, yes – or am I missing something?

    Sunny, Obama has 60 senators and a majority in the House of Representatives. Even if one were to accept that the US president is not a political manager (and surely he is on such a key note policy) the bottom line is that the public just are not with him.

    Strategy was poor – that is manifest – and that is interesting given that this was supposed to be the best transition ever. But there is more here than that.

  13. Shamit — on 22nd September, 2009 at 12:14 am  

    Sunny – Excellent – very well written. I probably disagree with only one point. I think Obama’s strategy was good in telling people they could keep their healthcare if they liked it.

    Point 6 for me would be Jimmy “bloody idiot” Carter. After the President’s Address to the Joint session the support swung towards the President’s ideas and it reflected in the polls.

    Then came Jimmy Carter and made that stupid statement about race – and that just swung the pendulum to the other side again because rather than Healthcare – Obama and his race became the story.

    Bill Clinton was not black but he faced pretty much the exact same opposition.

    Sometimes I wonder because he failed as President of the US — Jimmy Carter does not want any Democrat to succeed as President. Case in point the day the glorious loved by the loony left Carter made that statement — a strong statement backed with facts came out from HHS and even MSNBC did not cover it — they were too busy doing the race thing.

    ****************************************

    maidmarian

    “Americans across the political spectrum just do not want to pay for healthcare for poor Americans. There was not much more to it than that.”

    This month two empirical evidence based reports have come out detailing numbers of uninsured patients ending up in emergency rooms in US hospitals. And in many states the number is creeping up to almost 50%.

    Who pays for that? Everyone who has got insurance and through Taxes both at the state level as well as the Federal level.

    That is one of the key points Obama has been making and it was a key part of his speech when he delivered it to the Congress. And it was getting traction until Jimmy Carter fiasco

    “….the bottom line is that the public just are not with him.”

    Health care costs has polled as one of the biggest concerns Americans have consistently since 1980s. And the problem has got worse

    And as Sunny as pointed out it was one of the key planks of Obama’s presidential campaign. And the President never said he was for a comprehensive public option.

    I think he has still got the public and i think the Senate Bill is a compromise and I think for all the talk of it won’t happen — I would say Obama would get his health care bill if not this year – definitely in January with 60 senators. He currently does not have a filibuster proof majority since the death of Edward Kennedy.

    The other problem the President has is all the articulate Dems heavyweights are in cabinet jobs such as Clinton, Panetta etc etc which don’t allow him to get involved in domestic politics by law.

    This president may not get everything he wants but he would do it. And he has got the votes and the political courage to see it through.

  14. Ravi Naik — on 22nd September, 2009 at 12:15 am  

    Sunny… Fox News, the Republicans and Sarah Palin are irrelevant to healthcare reform. The media pretends like they are players, but they have no strength to derail this process. Obama still has the support of the majority of Americans and congressmen from both houses. If he wanted to shoot down the blue dogs, he would have. Instead, his chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel went on to castigate progressives for criticising the blue dogs, and being obsessed with the public option.

    It is obvious to me that Obama does not want to alienate the insurance industry, because they are big donors and he needs to think about his re-election (expect things to happen in his 2nd term). I do believe he wants to insure every American, but on the other, he doesn’t seem willing to fight those who have been abusing the system.

    Incidentally, the blue dogs were created by Rahm Emmanuel.

  15. Ravi Naik — on 22nd September, 2009 at 12:20 am  

    Then came Jimmy Carter and made that stupid statement about race – and that just swung the pendulum to the other side again because rather than Healthcare – Obama and his race became the story.

    Jimmy Carter is right. and I am glad he said it. Ironically, Rush Limbaugh was asking for segregated buses a few days later. The tea parties are always full of racist messages against Obama.

  16. Shamit — on 22nd September, 2009 at 12:28 am  

    A Chief of staff does publicly what his President cannot do – And they want to hold on to those seats at the midterms. And the Senate is going to give the Blue dog democrats cover by taking the public option off the table.

    Once the Bill is ready and agreed upon expect a photo-op for the Blue Dogs with the Pres. at the White House. And they would fall in line — because they don’t want to piss off Obama and the DNC or the DCCC because the money is controlled by the centre. And a Presidential visit with Air Force 1 does wonders for Congressional district re-election campaign.

    Insurance Industry can be controlled and would be controlled under pretty much all the versions of the bill that are circulating now. Everyone agrees on more Federal and stricter oversight of the Industry. That includes many republicans oh and of course Bill O Reily.

  17. Sunny — on 22nd September, 2009 at 12:32 am  

    Sunny… Fox News, the Republicans and Sarah Palin are irrelevant to healthcare reform. The media pretends like they are players, but they have no strength to derail this process.

    Yes but they influence public opinion. That cannot be ignored you know…

    Instead, his chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel went on to castigate progressives for criticising the blue dogs, and being obsessed with the public option.

    Yeah, Glenn Greenwald says the same thing. I don’t know what the hell the Obama administration is doing because it seems he’s screwing it up. But perhaps he wants a slow deliberative process…. or maybe he wants to save his firepower for the Blue Dogs for other reasons.

    Shamit, thanks… yeah I’d probably agree about Carter. Though I feel that someone had to say it, and obviously Obama wouldn’t. Maureen Dowd said it first. The point is, you can’t be afraid of calling a spade a spade otherwise the right well get away with hell.

    MM – the point is he got elected on that manifesto. He had the support, but it’s slowly turning away…

  18. Shamit — on 22nd September, 2009 at 12:34 am  

    “Jimmy Carter is right. and I am glad he said it”

    I am not. Neither was President Obama because the next day the news cycles did not talk about the President’s agenda and healthcare but his race and how opposing his policies is racist.

    And which opened the floodgates for the right wing crew to show images and pictures of what the left called Bush and the terms that were used. So the next four to five news cycles including in this country, we had talking heads discussing how racist the opposition to the healthcare policy is — rather than discussing the policy. Thats supposed to get the job done.. no wonder the loony left never gets anything done.
    This is the lot that called Petraus – Betray us. And you defended them Ravi if I am not wrong.

  19. Sunny — on 22nd September, 2009 at 1:36 am  

    So the next four to five news cycles including in this country, we had talking heads discussing how racist the opposition to the healthcare policy is — rather than discussing the policy. Thats supposed to get the job done.. no wonder the loony left never gets anything done.

    Yeah but this is why the left keeps losing.

    First right-wing crazies and racists go on the attack. You call them out on it and they accuse you of playing the race card, get all hysterical, and saying ‘loony left’ etc and start making comparisons to Bush (Obama hasn’t killed anyone yet, remember).

    And so lefties become scared of even raising the debate, with the end result that the right completely dominate and the left just hope that they don’t get attacked too much.

    Wrong, you gotta go on the attack. In fact I’d have started with accusing the Republicans of allowing deaths by being aligned to the insurance companies. You have to let them do the defending, not the attacking.

  20. Shamit — on 22nd September, 2009 at 9:30 am  

    Sunny

    I have no problems attacking the Republican Right. They should be attacked the homophobic, anti minority, anti everything stupid assholes on being divisive and the party that says NO.

    There are two kinds of politicians one that say yes and are willing to lift the heavy burden and bring changes no matter how hard the challenge is — and that is exactly what this President is doing. While the Republicans are becoming the NO Party which does not help any Americans as they are spending more and more on Healthcare and most people can’t afford it.

    Now the Dems are trying while the idiotic right wing screwed up Republican party is spreading lies – and a liar is a liar.

    But bringing in the race card into play and giving attention to some protestors does not make good strategy.

  21. cjcjc — on 22nd September, 2009 at 9:44 am  

    Not all conservatives have been opposed to reform, of course.

    Here is Friedman for example:

    http://www.hoover.org/publications/digest/3459466.html

    How on earth have the current shower descended this far?

  22. Ravi Naik — on 22nd September, 2009 at 10:33 am  

    This is the lot that called Petraus – Betray us. And you defended them Ravi if I am not wrong.

    I reject any equivalence between the MoveOn.org campaign and what the teabaggers/Fox News are doing. One was based on reason (which you could disagree), and the other is truly irrational and hateful. The reason why I am glad that Carter said it was precisely because journalists were too afraid to say what was the driving force of these protests. The theme “foreigner/stranger/anti-American” is all too familiar in these campaigns, and there is no way people would actually say any of these things about McCain. The irony of course, is that Obama was born in the US, and McCain wasn’t.

    So the next four to five news cycles including in this country, we had talking heads discussing how racist the opposition to the healthcare policy is — rather than discussing the policy. Thats supposed to get the job done.

    Oh, how cute. You think that the media is really interested in a serious debate about healthcare? It doesn’t. Instead it focuses on things that sell papers, and news like this sell. If you didn’t have this, they would find something else. It is undeniable that Republicans are tapping on racial polarisation, and any time they have to defend themselves, it’s less time they have to attack healthcare reform through their lies.

    Wrong, you gotta go on the attack. In fact I’d have started with accusing the Republicans of allowing deaths by being aligned to the insurance companies. You have to let them do the defending, not the attacking.

    Correct. But Republicans are a damaged brand, and recent polls have shown that the public does not believe in them, except for those 35% of the population who watches Glenn Beck. And Obama is doing his rope-a-dope strategy and Republicans are falling once again on it.

    I totally agree with rule 4, and the reason why this administration got careless is because Obama is triangulating. He wants healthcare reform, he wants universal healthcare, but he doesn’t want to alienate the industry that provides those services: so he began abandoning the public option. Progressives got really angry, because they know that if the public option is not enforced, then there is no real healthcare reform. Obama started talking about the public option, but he might use the Blue Dogs as scapegoats if he decides not to have it. Bottom line is that Obama has the power to do reform according to his terms.

    Let’s wait and see. I have been disappointed with his stand on gay rights and would not surprise me if he pulled another disappointment, but my feeling is that he will come through in his second term.

  23. Shamit — on 22nd September, 2009 at 11:38 am  

    Heh!

    Ravi – Thank you for your lessons.

    I feel educated now and I am sure I would understand American Politics much better now. Thank you so much for that wonderful insight into the political process.

  24. MaidMarian — on 22nd September, 2009 at 12:28 pm  

    shamit (13) and Sunny (17) – Thank you for your reply.

    ‘Who pays for that? Everyone who has got insurance and through Taxes both at the state level as well as the Federal level.’ I don’t disagree.

    ‘Health care costs has polled as one of the biggest concerns Americans have consistently since 1980s. And the problem has got worse.’ Again, I don’t disagree, but what I am getting at is that when confronted with ‘reform’ it would appear that the American public is rather less keen. Go and tell those in town hall meetings that it was in the manifesto and see how far you get.

    There is a wider point here. On global figures the US has middling health outcomes. Take out gunshot victims though and the US system is amongst the best in the business. The problem you are having is that you are confronting the American middle class with the bill for (largely) black gang violence. Not a palatable thought I realise.

    Simply rationalising this to, ‘it was in the manifesto,’ just doesn’t cut it. There was lots in the New Labour manifesto I would guess you don’t like.

  25. Tom Degan — on 22nd September, 2009 at 3:40 pm  

    Hey, Democrats! Although I left your silly party over a decade ago, my heart is still essentially with your platform and agenda. That being said, I would ask all of you to think of me as Dr. Degan, your loving and trusted family veterinarian. After a complete and thorough examination of your beloved pets, it grieves me to offer you this final diagnosis:

    Your Blue Dogs must be put to sleep.

    The Democrats are not going to distinguish their party by trying to sell themselves as Republican Lite. They’re not going to turn America around by foolishly preserving the policies of the last thirty years. They need to educate their constituency by showing them the folly of their abhorrence of things “Left” and “Liberal”. Three-quarters-of-a-century ago, American democracy was saved by a government that was decidedly left-of center in all but a few areas. It can happen again. But it’s only going to happen if WEEDA PEEPOLE refuse to turn right at the next crossroad. It is only down the road.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, Dr. Degan has some Blue Dogs on his table that need to be put out of our misery.

    http://www.tomdegan.blogspot.com

    Tom Degan
    Goshen, NY

  26. soru — on 22nd September, 2009 at 6:56 pm  

    ‘Wrong, you gotta go on the attack. ‘

    Yes, but you want to attack where you are strong, which tends to mean where the facts that support you are unusually strong, simple and clear. Ideally, something like Stephen Hawking’s nationality.

    Stupid arguments only tend to work when backed with overwhelming media fire-power, which the US left doesn’t have to spare. Though obviously it would help if everyone was shooting in the same direction…

    For example, factually speaking:

    1. Obama is black.
    2. plenty of health care critics can’t really convincingly be shown to be much more racist than the average american.

    So launching an attack on those grounds is pretty much WWI walk-into-the-machine-gun-fire levels of stupid.

  27. Dr Anonymous — on 23rd September, 2009 at 7:00 am  

    You’re repeating a media narrative based on the idea that Obama wanted fundamental reform. Go to Open Left and see some of the posts that debunk this.

    1. Public opinion can be shifted, and it has been, but there is reason to at least question the timeline you’ve laid out. See here quoting a pollster who took a combined look at the polls:

    The trend in opinion on health care reform has been a bit tricky of late. After a long and substantial rise of opposition, and an equally long but less sizable decline in support, we came to August, the month for the strange in politics. This year was stranger than most with loud and angry town halls, fearful politicians reluctant to meet constituents, cable news of gun toting demonstrators, an extended presidential vacation and the death of an icon. And what did all the rancor produce? Apparently, the sound and fury signified, surprisingly, a flattening of the trends in opinion. Opposition slowed its rise (not accelerated), and support halted its fall and by the second week of August, began a modest rise. And that before the president spoke to the joint session of Congress.

    2. This is also self-evidently true, particularly sicne facts like ‘single payer health care is better than all options ever considered for this bill’ were left out of the political discussion almost entirely. However, the prevailing emotion in American politics today, as close as I can read it, is a desire for calm after a decade and a half of intense polarisation. You see this in the support for Obama. It’s similar to Reagan’s ‘silent majority.’

    3. I agree that if Obama’s desire was to fundamentally shift the status quo, he shouldn’t have defended it. However, he is a pragmatist and a centrist (to put it in polite terms), who isn’t even committed to establishing a government health care plan. This is foolish primarily for political economy reasons, but if the American elite doesn’t want to learn any lessons from the history of industrial development and the importance of economies of scale and disciplining segments of capital when necessary even if it serves the interests of capital over all, that’s not my problem. What is my problem is if they pass a bill without a public option in it.

    4. This is a fundamental misreading of the situation. You can’t have discipline when you’re trying to pursue a big tent strategy. Reconciling through discipline the DLC, Blue Dog democrats, the Progressive caucus in the House, and the Administration’s own agenda would have been next to impossible – they have very different goals in what falls under ‘health care reform.’ What you could have had was a disciplined, well thought out message from the President or other leaders, and that has been largely absent and perhaps some pressure to force the chair of the Senate Finance Committee to come up with a reasonable, workable bill.

    People need to stop hero worshipping Obama – his goal was to get a bill passed that would address some of the issues, not a fundamental structural reform of health care – to the extent that it’sg oing to go further than that when it’s passed (and it will be, i think), it will be because the house of representatives actually stood against the favored solution of the Administration, which was a non-profit entity providing coverage and both subsidies and some regulation of the private insurance market.

  28. Dr Anonymous — on 23rd September, 2009 at 7:06 am  

    @Audrey – you cited something called ‘friends of the american chamber of commerce’ and expect us to take this seriously as the expression of some kind of collective sensibility? :) Why don’t i just link to Noam Chomsky and argue that all of us americans oppose american imperialism? :)

  29. Ravi Naik — on 23rd September, 2009 at 12:05 pm  

    I feel educated now and I am sure I would understand American Politics much better now. Thank you so much for that wonderful insight into the political process.

    Perhaps one day you can explain to me why you find so outrageous that the MoveOn campaign had the gull to ask General Petraeus to speak the truth as he was going to testify in congress about the success of the operations in Iraq. Here is the context.

    It is a well known fact that the Bush administration politicised the war on terror and the war in Iraq to their advantage. Remember that theory that the “loony” left came about that each time Bush was in trouble, they would raise the national security level? We now know that’s exactly what they did. Asking General Petraeus to speak the whole truth is not out of bounds, and the fact that he is part of the military is no reason not to question his integrity.

    What I find disingenuous on your part is to compare movements like DailyKos or MoveOn which are based on reality and in which you may or may not disagree with, with these ignorant, aberrant and irrational loonies whose views can be traced all the way to the leaders of the Republican Party and conservative media.

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