Now that Senate Finance Committee Chair and Blue Dog Democrat Max Baucus has introduced his overdue and incredibly inadequate version of health care reform legislation, all eyes are on the Obama administration and House and Senate leaders as they stuff the provisions of five different bills and hundreds of amendments into the Congressional sausage-making machine and attempt to grind out a palatable reform package.
Away from the spotlight, however, strategists aligned with both political parties are already engaged in an exercise that is even more important than fixing the nation’s crippled health care delivery system. Democrats are busily attempting to figure out what went wrong and how they can make sure they don’t screw up like this again, while Republicans want to figure out how to make sure that it happens again, and again, and again, until we end up back in power?
The answers have far deeper implications than the provisions of the health care bill that will eventually reach the president’s desk. The side that finds the right answers will control the policy and electoral battlefield for years to come.
Among those offering answers are William Galston, Stan Greenberg, and Ruy Teixeira, the influential editors of the web-based journal The Democratic Strategist. In their most recent issue, they and writer James Vega assert that the Democrats’ difficulties were not caused by the administration’s flawed strategic and legislative decisions related to health care reform. Instead, they place the blame on the Obama team’s failure to create and organize around a clearly defined core message within one month of taking office.
Their prescription for curing what ails the Party? They suggest that the President clearly define himself and his agenda, that the Democrats establish a highly motivated corps of volunteers dedicated to spreading the word about the message, and that the Party develop local activities, including selling or distributing coffee mugs, tire gauges, and soap emblazoned with the words “Yes we can,” that will eventually involve into “enduring” institutions.
My reaction: wrong diagnosis, wrong cure. And that’s dangerous because Galston, Greenberg, and Teixeira are so influential that some Democratic leaders may actually attempt to implement their misguided strategy instead of focusing on fixing what’s really gone wrong—and what most threatens the Democratic grasp on the reins of power.
Let’s start with their contention that the president’s failure to define his overall message, rather than his flawed health care strategy, is to blame for the current debacle. This ignores the fact that the American people were extremely familiar with and supportive of Mr. Obama’s overall philosophy and agenda immediately before and after he took office. They knew health care reform was his signature initiative, they overwhelmingly agreed that the system needed to be fixed, and in poll after poll, including one recently conducted by the Center for Working-Class Studies, they name him as the person they trusted most to get the job done.
It wasn’t necessary to lay out the big picture—everyone got it, including the suddenly cooperative health care stakeholders and dispirited conservatives: reform was inevitable. Not even Rush Limbaugh, who assumed virtual leadership of the GOP after the 2008 election, or the incredibly bizarre Glenn Beck could stop it.
Then the President made a strategic blunder. He turned responsibility for crafting the final plan over to Congressional Democrats. The minute he did so the public’s confidence in and support for reform began to erode, especially among critically important independent voters.
That created the opportunity for conservatives to gain control of the debate. As five separate Congressional committees dithered for months, anti-reform activists began spreading lies about the various proposals. Suddenly we heard about government-run death panels that would cavalierly kill grandma, dangerous cuts in Medicare, and Canadian-style socialized medicine that would leave Americans dying in the streets as they waited for heart operations and chemotherapy.
As the falsehoods gained traction in the media, reform advocates grew increasingly frustrated. Not because no Democratic activists were prepared to enter the fray. To the contrary, the nearly ten million members of Organizing for America were eager to become involved. But without a concrete reform plan to counter the lies being spread by Limbaugh, Beck, Lou Dobbs, Sean Hannitty, and Sarah Palin, they found it hard to fight. You can’t beat something—even a compendium of BS—with nothing.
And that’s all the Democrats had until the president addressed a joint session of Congress on September 9. Reclaiming ownership of the issue, he used his impressive rhetorical skills to inspire supporters, engender trust among skeptics, and shame the liars. We won’t know for months whether he acted in time. But at least reform, which had entered a permanent vegetative state during August, is now showing spasmodic signs of life.
No matter the outcome, Democrats must learn some important lessons from the current battle. The first is that Barack Obama was elected to lead and despite his apparent compulsion to seek consensus, he must do exactly that when the stakes are high. Damn the Republicans and the Blue Dogs. Take charge. Get the job done.
A number of difficult issues remain on the table, including reshaping the American economy, re-regulating Wall Street, and restoring workers’ rights. The outcome of those battles is entirely dependent on whether the president will use his personal political capital to fight for what’s right. If he does, progressives will win. If not, they will almost certainly lose.
The second lesson is not to re-invent the organizational wheel. Democrats weren’t out-organized on health care. They were out-communicated. The millions of Organize for America activists who check their e-mail everyday hoping to be called to action would have totally overwhelmed the conservative wing-nuts if only they’d been given the message they needed to do so.
Finally, Democrats don’t need to waste time, effort, money, and energy building a new organization or printing up a bunch of doo-dads emblazoned with “Yes, we can.” Organize for America has already demonstrated that. And they’re out there waiting for the opportunity to show that they can do it again.