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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

J.P. Green

Westen: Dems Need Better ‘Branding’

Drew Westen’s HuffPo column, “Why the Democrats Are Losing Ground As Obama Is Gaining It” should generate some concern in Democratic Party circles. Westen, author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, cites recent Rasmussen polls, which indicate a worrisome trend for Dems:

As the latest Rasmussen polls show, in March the percent of voters who consider themselves Democrats dropped by 2 percent–four times the rate of decline among Republicans (even as the Republicans were publicly flailing, producing numberless budgets, and unwittingly branding themselves as the party of old ideas and the party of “no”). More ominous, the margin of voters supporting a Democrat over a Republican in a generic ballot for Congress dropped to its lowest point since both the Iraq War and the economy had clearly gone south by 2006: one percent (40 vs. 39%).

Westen attributes the decline in Democratic self-i.d. to a failure of political ‘branding’:

But the best products fail without good branding. In politics, you don’t win on ideas alone…Successful branding requires two things: creating positive associations to your own brand, and differentiating it from competing brands. In politics, that means offering voters a clear, memorable, emotionally compelling narrative about your party’s core principles, while presenting them with an equally clear, memorable, and evocative story about the other party that would not make anyone want to be associated with it. If there were ever a time Democrats could offer both stories, this is it.

While Westen’s premise would be more convincing if there were another poll or two indicating similar results, his corrective prescription makes a lot of sense, regardless. He points out that “repetition is essential psychologically, neurologically, and empirically to branding,” and FDR provided a useful template for Democratic presidents:

Roosevelt’s consistent branding of the Republicans as inflexible ideologues at the same time as he showed what progressive, pragmatic action and Democratic leadership could offer led to a political realignment that lasted 40 years.

Westen acknowledges that this has not been President Obama’s ‘style’ — the President prefers to criticize negative values like greed, rather than people, and it’s hard to argue with his success thus far. However, Westen believes that it’s critical for Dems to provide a credible voice to do the needed branding:

But someone needs to be in the fray other than the GOP. The worst thing to be in politics is silent, because it allows the other side to shape public sentiment uncontested. It wouldn’t hurt to have a Southern voice like Tim Kaine’s behind a megaphone with a “D” written on it. But whether it’s Kaine or someone else with credibility and charisma, somebody needs to start saying what Democrats and Republicans stand for other than Newt Gingrich, John Boehner, and Richard Shelby. That’s a lesson we should have learned a long time ago…In politics, there is nothing so deadly as silence.

Right now it’s hard to identify anyone south of the presidency who has the megaphone to make it stick. Westen’s point about the need for more of a ‘southern voice,’ including Governor Kaine, is well taken. Former Presidents Clinton and Carter are busy being statesmen, but it would be helpful if they joined the fray from time to time. Perhaps it’s time for Dems to organize a southern ‘echo chamber’ composed of southern governors, senators and house members in a concerted branding project.
On the positive side, the progressive blogosphere has made an excellent contribution towards branding the Republicans as the party that ran America into “the ditch…by the side of the road” Westen refers to, and some of it (not enough) has reverbed into the traditional media. But the blogosphere can’t do it all. The Democratic Party will now have to step up and lead the way in more clearly defining itself as the Party of solutions and progress.

Big Demos, Political Strategy Need Narrower Focus

Are big protest demonstrations still effective? London Timesonline writer Phil Collins has a video clip giving the once-over-lightly treatment to the broader question of the influence of public demonstrations in a historical and contemporary context.
Collins takes a quick look at a half dozen successful and failed demos in the UK, The U.S. and India (with brief video of demos in other countries) and he makes a salient point about the G20 protests communicating “the vague sense that it’s against this whole set of global institutions, but no clear sense of what it is for.”
Collins argues that a protest does better when it “connects to a wider sense in the people that an injustice has been done” and that a successful protest “needs authorities on the verge of capitulation.” I’m not sure he’s right about the latter point. Sometimes a protest can serve a good purpose by publicizing an injustice, even when authorities are firmly opposed. You have to start somewhere. The 1999 “Battle of Seattle” demos, for example, didn’t achieve any concrete reforms, but they did help expand public awareness about the injustices of WTO trade policies.
Joshua Keating’s “Do Protests Ever Work” post at Foreign Policy‘s ‘Passport’ blog riffs on Collins’s clip, adding:

The fact that much of the street activism against the U.S. war in Iraq has been led by a group called Act Now to Stop War & End Racism is a good indication of why the antiwar movement has never really been a factor in debates over U.S. foreign policy. Rather than organizing around a specific political goal, ending the war, these marches tend to devolve into general lefty free-for-alls encompassing everything from Palestine to free trade the environment to capital punishment.

Keating is here talking more about large demonstrations than protest in general. For the most thorough discussion of forms of nonviolent protest available, check out Gene Sharp’s 3-volume “The Politics of Nonviolent Action” and other of his works on the topic (Sharp has been called “the Clauswitz of Nonviolence”).
As a veteran of many street demos going back to the sixties, including one that got me three days in the hoosegow, I have long had the feeling that too many 21st century demonstrations have a ‘kitchen sink’ quality, with a long, eye-glazing list of diverse grievances and no shortage of windy speakers to back them up. I also suspect that, instead of winning hearts and minds, spectators may be turned off by all of the negative yammering, which is what they see in the news clips, since the media rarely broadcast the positive vision part of the speeches.
So I say amen to Collins’s point about narrowing the focus, a principle which could be extended to political strategy in general, the failure of California’s ‘Big Green’ referendum in 1990 being an instructive case in point. The broader the legislative reform, the bigger the target for the oppos. I wonder if the same principle might apply to issues like health care reform strategy, as is suggested by the fate of ‘Hillarycare.’ Why not, for example, start with a bill that forbids all insurance companies from denying complete catastrophic coverage to their policy-holders and expanding Medicaid to provide it to those not covered by private insurers. Later for drugs, preventive care, Dental and myriad related concerns. Yes I know, it’s complicated and health issues are all interconnected. But “big package” reform is always problematic, and too often doomed by its very complexity. It’s difficult to build public support for reforms so broad and complex that the public doesn’t have time to read up about everything needed to form strong supportive opinions. Breaking reform packages down into separate one-at-a-time initiatives, on the other hand, builds the potential mass of active supporters.

Can Obama Deploy Some LBJ Strategy?

Robert Dallek has put a must-read post for political strategy junkies up on the New York Times Opinion section, “Can Obama Be a Majority of One?” Dallek, author of acclamed books about Democratic presidencies, discusses which of LBJ’s impressively successful legislative reform tactics might work for President Obama. On Johnson’s sober expectations:

Despite his majorities, Johnson took nothing for granted. He predicted “a hard fight every inch of the way.” He told one adviser: “I’ve watched the Congress from either the inside or the outside … for more than 40 years, and I’ve never seen a Congress that didn’t eventually take the measure of the president it was dealing with.”

LBJ had a toughness of spirit in dealing with congress, but it was tempered with matchless parliamentary know-how and lengthy mental dossiers on hundreds of members of congress that informed his deployment of carrots and sticks:

…He directed aides to treat every member of Congress as if he or she was the center of the political universe. They were instructed to return a representative’s or senator’s call in “10 minutes or else.” Johnson himself devoted countless hours talking to them on the telephone.
Conservative Democrats and Republicans were not neglected. When Representative Silvio Conte, a Republican from Massachusetts, cast a vote for a Johnson initiative, the president called to thank him “on behalf of the nation for your vote.” “It’s the only time since I have been in Congress that a president called me,” Conte said. “I will never forget it”
Every bill Johnson sent to the Hill was presented as a collaboration and was identified with a particular representative or senator. And no cooperative legislator would go un-rewarded…Uncooperative legislators paid a price for their independence. When Senator Frank Church, an Idaho Democrat, justified a vote against a Johnson bill by saying that columnist Walter Lippmann shared his view, Johnson scolded him: “Frank, next time you want a dam in Idaho, you call Walter Lippmann and let him put it through.”

On President Obama’s more limited options:

Three months into his presidency, it’s apparent that Mr. Obama is not likely to match the 207 significant pieces of Johnson legislation; but not because he’s unmindful of L.B.J.’s methods. Like Johnson, the current president has been showering considerable attention on members of Congress, courting them by traveling to the Hill and asking their input into his big ticket items — the budget, health insurance, educational, and environmental reforms…
But Mr. Obama faces a more difficult challenge than Johnson’s. Unlike L.B.J., he lacks long-time ties to Congressional leaders, which may be one reason his stimulus plan barely made it out of the Senate and many Democrats, including Kent Conrad, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, are balking at the president’s proposed budget. In addition, the sort of mutual back-scratching Johnson relied on is out of vogue. Trading pork-barrel grants for Congressional votes is no longer seen as acceptable politics but as unsavory opportunism. Also, Mr. Obama has far thinner majorities than Johnson had and fewer moderate Republicans to woo. Finally, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and deficits running as far into the future as the eye can see are problems that did not burden Johnson’s reach for a Great Society.

On a more positive note, however:

Yet all is not lost. President Obama has a degree of popular support that rivals the approval F.D.R., Eisenhower, Kennedy and Reagan enjoyed. And the public’s continuing eagerness for change gives him an advantage over Congress that may yet translate into major economic and social reforms.

Add to this Obama’s email rollodex, the progressive blogosphere support and the edge provided by a highly competent staff, and Obama’s political assets for winning legialtive reforms are formidable.
It would be hard to match LBJ’s mastery of political hardball and softball, and Obama may face a test sooner than later, if congressional Democratic leaders decide to go with the controversial “fast track” budget reconciliation process to pass President Obama’s health care reform and global warming legislation. Resorting to the filibuster-preventing tactic makes some Democrats who still hold fast to fading hopes for a more bipartisan approach a little queasy. But it has been used 19 times in recent years in which both houses of Congress were controlled by one party, according to Majority Leader Harry Reid, who says ” I don’t know why everyone is up in arms about it.”
Indeed. When was the last time an incoming GOP President sincerely reached out to embrace Democrats in genuine bipartisan goodwill? And it’s equally hard to cite an example of Republicans reaching out to help President Obama achieve bipartisan reform. It is early in Obama’s term for protracted trench warfare, but if that’s what it takes to get decent health care coverage for Americans and a sane environmental policy, then we need to bring it on.

Obama Af-Pak Strategy Gains Qualified Support

President Obama’s new strategy regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan is getting cautiously favorable reviews from a broad range of foreign policy experts, most of whom give him credit for narrowing the U.S. mission to defeating Al Queda and their supporters in the Taliban.
The New York Times has an editorial, “The Remembered War,” which does a good job of putting Obama’s new policy in perspective, noting:

…It was greatly encouraging simply to see the president actually focusing on this war and placing it in the broader regional framework that has been missing from American policy. That is a good first step toward fixing the dangerous situation that former President George W. Bush created when he abandoned the necessary war in Afghanistan for the ill-conceived war of choice in Iraq.
Mr. Obama has come back to first principles. Instead of Mr. Bush’s vague talk of representative democracy in Afghanistan, he defined a more specific mission. “We are not in Afghanistan to control that country or dictate its future,” Mr. Obama said, but “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

Foreign Policy magazine’s ‘Flashpoints‘ leads the discussion on the pros and cons of Obama’s Af-Pak strategy paper with a package of 7 separate articles from different authors, including “Will the Real Obama Middle East Strategy Please Stand Up?” by Brian Katulis, who credits Obama with,

a much-needed step in the right direction on the Pakistan piece of its policy. Increasing support for the democratically-elected civilian government and massively increasing development assistance to the country are steps that many think tanks have been calling for

Robert Templer, Asia program director at the International Crisis Group adds this in his Flashpoints contribution, “Call in the police (but please help them first)“.

Policing is one of the most effective — and also the most ill-used — tools available to tackle extremism. Yet compared with military and other assistance, international support for policing is miniscule, and much of it is delivered in an uncoordinated and ineffectual manner. Since 2002, the United States has given the Pakistani military more than $10 billion, only the thinnest slice of which has gone to policing…Giving police forces a greater role in counterinsurgency shouldn’t mean sending them heedlessly into harm’s way. What is needed are police to keep everyday peace on the streets. Reducing general criminality and providing security to the public provides the most widely shared and distributed public good. It is much more effective in winning hearts and minds than digging wells or building schools — and indeed encourages and protects such development activities.

In addition to the Flashpoints collection, FP is featuring “The Idiot’s Guide to Pakistan” by Nicholas Schmidle, a fellow at the New America Foundation who lived in Pakistan in 2006 and 7. Schmidle witholds judgment about the prospects of our Pakistan policy, but he provides a sobering read for gung-ho interventionists.
The New York Times also has a ‘Topic A’ roundtable addressing the President’s Af-Pak strategy with 10 short articles, one of which by Andrew Bacevich, author of “The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism,” asks an interesting big-picture question:

Ask yourself: When it comes to American prosperity and security, which matters more — Afghanistan or Mexico? The question answers itself. So if the United States has billions of dollars lying idle that it wishes to invest in development and security assistance, why prioritize Afghanistan?

Bacevich adds

More important than Afghanistan is neighboring Pakistan — bigger, at least as dysfunctional and armed with nuclear weapons. Yet the Obama plan treats Pakistan as an afterthought, promising trivial levels of assistance given the challenges facing that country. Even assuming that America can “fix” Afghanistan, does it possess the wherewithal, wisdom and will to do likewise in Pakistan?

In the NYT roundtable, former deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan Meghan O’Sullivan takes a more positive view:

President Obama’s new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan deserves high marks on several fronts: The president made a compelling case connecting these countries with U.S. interests; he committed substantially more military and civilian resources to the effort; and he placed equal weight on Afghanistan and Pakistan — the latter being the true epicenter of this conflict. It is reasonable to wonder whether the new strategy is informed by the most important lesson from Iraq: Nothing is more important than winning the support of the population by providing security. Obama announced a “shift [in] the emphasis of our mission to training and increasing the size of the Afghan security forces.”

Then there is the thorny question about how welcome we are in Muslim countries. Juan Cole, President of the Global Americana Institute, notes at his Informed Comment blog:

In a recent poll, Muslim publics, including that in Pakistan, overwhelmingly rejected US military presence in Muslim countries. A year ago, an opinion poll of Pakistanis found that “most Pakistanis do not believe that Pakistan-U.S. security cooperation has benefited Pakistan, and a majority (84 percent) sees the U.S. military presence in Asia as a greater threat to Pakistan than Al Qaeda and the Taliban (60 percent). Two-thirds of the Pakistanis polled do not trust the United States to “act responsibly in the world,” and a vast majority thinks the United States aims to “weaken and divide the Islamic world.” A recent poll of residents of the tribal belt themselves found majority support for the US Predator strikes, but polls show that Pakistanis in general view the US as a destabilizing factor for their country.

Cole told Rachel Maddow “I didn’t think we were at war with Pakistan so much as with some Pushtun tribes on either side of the Hindu Kush. And I didn’t think it was likely that they would be brought under “control.”
Meanwhile I’m hoping President Obama and Secretary Clinton read an interesting article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, “How Development Leads to Democracy” by Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel, co-authors of Modernization, Cultural Change, and Democracy. A couple of nut graphs:

…The bad news is that it is unrealistic to assume that democratic institutions can be set up easily, almost anywhere, at any time. Although the outlook is never hopeless, democracy is most likely to emerge and survive when certain social and cultural conditions are in place. The Bush administration ignored this reality when it attempted to implant democracy in Iraq without first establishing internal security and overlooked cultural conditions that endangered the effort.
The good news, however, is that the conditions conducive to democracy can and do emerge — and the process of “modernization,” according to abundant empirical evidence, advances them. Modernization is a syndrome of social changes linked to industrialization. Once set in motion, it tends to penetrate all aspects of life, bringing occupational specialization, urbanization, rising educational levels, rising life expectancy, and rapid economic growth. These create a self-reinforcing process that transforms social life and political institutions, bringing rising mass participation in politics and — in the long run — making the establishment of democratic political institutions increasingly likely…

It’s a good point to keep in mind as the Obama Administration refines its long range strategy in the mid and near east and we invest billions of dollars to fight terrorism and promote democracy.

Specter Clarifies Dems ’10 Strategy

Sen. Arlen Specter’s decision to betray Pennsylvania workers who helped elect him last cycle and opppose EFCA may go down as the day the bipartisan music died. Specter’s potentially decisive vote to pass EFCA would have likely been the most emblematically bipartisan vote cast in this session of congress and have made him the poster boy for bipartisan kumbaya. As AFL-CIO President John Sweeney put it, Specter’s defection is “a disappointment and a rebuke to working people, to his own constituents in Pennsylvania and working families around the country.”
It’s not hard to figure Specter’s motivation. As the gang at MSNBC‘s ‘First Read’ explain:

…he likely has a tough GOP primary on his hands next year. And, according to a new Quinnipiac poll, that primary might be even tougher than we imagined. The poll shows conservative Pat Toomey topping the more moderate Specter by a whopping 14 points in a hypothetical Pennsylvania GOP primary, 41%-27%. Overall, Specter gets relatively high marks from Pennsylvania voters. His fav/unfav is 45%-31%, but among Republicans, it’s just 29%-47%; among Democrats, it’s 60%-16% (who would have thought that?). Per the poll, the reason why Republicans are upset with Specter: his support for Obama’s stimulus. Specter, of course, narrowly beat Toomey in a GOP primary in 2004.

Ironically, Specter’s defection may not save his bacon with his fellow Republicans. As Greg Sargent notes in his blog at The Plum Line:

Doug Stafford of the anti-EFCA National Right to Work Committee added in a statement that Specter’s move should be “viewed with some skepticism,” adding that other labor-oriented proposals championed by Specter remain “totally unacceptable” and will enable “Big Labor to corral more workers into forced unionism.”
Specter’s potential primary challenger, Club for Growth president Pat Toomey, has kept up the attacks, blasting Specter’s vote for the “big government stimulus bill” and dismissing Specter’s opposition to EFCA as merely the result of “a threat in the Republican primary.”

Specter, who co-sponsored the EFCA legislation last session and even voted for cloture to pass it, made unconvincing noises about this not being a good time to pass EFCA, cuz, you know, the recession and all. As Christopher Hayes put it in his article “Specter Stabs Unions in the Back” in The Nation, “what really happened is he got metaphorically waterboarded by the U. S. Chamber of Commerce.” And don’t be too shocked if he gets some lucrative board seats and corporate speaking engagements down the road.
Sure, we would have liked to have Specter’s vote. After giving him due credit for supporting the stimulus legislation, one welcome aspect of his decision is that it adds clarity to the Democratic Party’s priorities in 2010. No more molly-coddling centrist Republicans who cave in on the big worker rights issues. And electing a Democrat to replace Specter in ’10 is our new Job One. This we should do, not only to get to 60, but also to show potential GOP allies that there is a price to be paid for switching sides.

Needed: Economic Pitchmen/Women

Peter Nicholas and Peter Wallsten are on to something in their L.A.Times article “On Economic Matters, Obama Lacks a Secretary of Selling It.”:

Aside from President Obama, the administration has yet to find a commanding figure who can carry economic policy messages and inspire confidence in White House prescriptions…In assembling his economic team, the President gave first priority to technical skill and intellectual achievement. So far, none of his senior advisors has shown the extra ability to inspire as well — both on Wall Street and Main Street…Because the programs are complex, costly and politically unpopular, the dearth of administration officials who can dominate the stage is becoming a serious handicap.

Economists can be eloquent fellows talking to each other and to other policy wonks. However,

“The ability to communicate with average people was not what these people were chosen for,” said Alice M. Rivlin, budget director under President Clinton. “They were chosen for their understanding of the problem and their ability to think creatively about it and to work out solutions to what is admittedly a very complex issue.”…Selling the president’s economic plans “clearly has not been their forte,” she said

Certainly no one has identified any nascent media stars on Obama’s economic team. But has there ever been a really impressive economic policy salesman or woman, as far as the average voter is concerned ? There’s a reason they call Economics “the dismal science.” If you want to clear out a party quickly, just start talking loudly about the Laffer curve or the velocity of M1.
It could be argued that President Reagan and Newt Gingrich were effective economic policy pitchmen. But what they were really selling was simple: deregulation and tax and federal budget cuts — less economic policy. Their pitch was well-timed, if ill-considered and simplistic. Never mind that they ended up tripling the federal deficit.
Like Obama, FDR was his own economic pitchman and by all accounts, he worked the press quite effectively. But it was a simpler time then, and radio, a media industry now dominated by right-wing gasbags, was the make or break p.r. tool. Pitching economic policy to voters is now more about television than any other media, with the influence of the internet rising just as print media begins to fade into history. Moreover, FDR was really selling himself. He was able to convey a bold persona and a sense that he knew what he was doing.
It is unclear whether Obama, his extraordinary speechmaking skills notwithstanding, can sell himself as effectively over time in our more cynical era. Communications tools are more complex, and that can be a good thing for a media-savvy president (see our staff post below). He has gotten high marks from economists for his media advocacy of economic policy reforms, according to Wallsten and Nicholas. But there is a fear among his staff of over-exposure, and worse, burnout. Tonight he will face the media in his second news conference, and hopefully will do as well as in his first press conference. Generally, however, he should play to his strength — speechifying.
Bottom line is a great many people are still bewildered or bored by economic policy discussions, despite the loud arguments about economic policy taking place in living rooms, bars and at water coolers across the country. It doesn’t matter if you have the greatest salesman/woman in the world fronting your agenda. Bailouts for failed banks and auto companies, along with subsidies for imprudent homeowners are a tough sell, no matter how well-justified by the cold hard facts. Ditto for tax hikes and reassuring voters that their retirement assets will one day return from the market’s Bermuda Triangle.
President Obama’s hole card is that voters well-understand that he has inherited a horrible mess not of his making, and most get it that there is no quick fix. He has to be careful, though, not to parrot this meme so much that it starts to sound like whining. Leave that thankless task to his economic team.

Health Care Reform Strategy Updates

Sheryl Jean of the Dallas-Morning News ‘Economy Watch Blog’ reports that the National Small Business Association has launched a new website, “Health Reform Today.”
In his Alternet article, “Health Care Reform in Critical Condition,” Roy Ulrich discusses whether it is still true, as former HEW Secretary Joseph Califano said that “real health care reform in this country could not become a reality until we accomplished the goal of enacting campaign finance reform at the national level.”
Former Senator Tom Daschle has a WaPo op-ed urging Americans not to get distracted by conservative fear-mongering about the ‘who’ of health care reform, and instead keep focused on the ‘what’ and the imperative of making reform a reality.
Also at WaPo, Karen Pallarito takes a look at the Obama Administration evolving health care reform proposals in light of a recent national opinion survey by Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health (toplines here).
Salon.com columnist Joe Conason’s “The questions our health care debate ignores” puts America’s health care system in global perspective in terms of universal coverage and cost.
Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, takes an interesting look at current reform options facing Obama and the Democrats in “An Election, a Budget, and Two Summits = A Bold Obama Strategy for Health Care Change.”
On March 3rd, I suggested that the failures of health care system are as much if not more of a real threat to national security in terms of protecting the lives of Americans than terrorism. Imagine, for example, the outrage if the death toll for our troops was 60 per day in Iraq or Afghanistan, because 60 per day or about 22 thousand Americans per year die from “the lack of health insurance,” according to the Institute of Medicine.
The Atlantic‘s Marc Armbinder reports that The Obama Administration will pursue health care reform through the 2010 budget resolutions, if they can’t forge a bipartisan consensus. Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com riffs on Armbinder’s article, noting the additional leverage Dems get in the struggle for health care reform as recession deepens and arguing that “it’s a fight where the White House ought to be favored.” Ezra Klein also has a post up today at The American Prospect on the legislative strategy of health reform via the budget process.
Ezra Klein also has an In These Times interview of Steffie Woolhandler, co-director of Physicians for a National Health Program, and Richard Kirsch, the national campaign manager for Health Care for America Now (HCAN) on the topic, “Which Way to Universal Healthcare?.”
A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll conducted 3/12-15 found that nearly three out of four adults are “happy with their overall health care coverage,”but more than three out of four respondents are “dissatisfied with the total cost of health care in this country” and only 29 percent say they are “very confident” they could pay their bills in the event of a major medical emergency.
Single-payer advocates will find americanheathcarerreform.org a bountiful source of links to insightful articles on the topic.

Obama’s ‘Teachable Moment’

President Obama’s quick apology for his gaffe likening his bowling skills to the “Special Olympics or something” on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show was well-timed and well-directed. Shortly after his appearance on the program, the President called Special Olympics Chairman Timothy Shriver, who described the President’s apology as “sincere and heartfelt.”
In his response, Shriver offered a challenge:

This is a teachable moment for our country. We are asking young people, parents and leaders from all walks of life to engage in conversation and help dispel negative caricatures about people with intellectual disabilities. We believe that it’s only through open conversation and dialogue about how stereotypes can cause pain that we can begin to work together to create communities of acceptance and inclusion for all

Shriver also urged the white house to hire a Special Olympics athlete and he called on “policy leaders at all levels to commit to improving the support and resources for people with intellectual disabilities in areas such as healthcare, education, housing and recreation.” This may be why Republican leaders have thus far not made too much of the President’s remark, since they have rarely supported adequate funding to help people with intellectual and physical disabilities. President Obama, on the other hand, has a robust agenda to expand assistance to people with disabilities.
People with disabilities, together with their families, are one of the largest constituencies in the electorate. It is estimated that approximately 20 million Americans with disabilities voted in the November election. Factoring in their families, a rough guestimate of 50 million voters significantly affected by disability policies would not be far out of line.
The ‘teachable moment’ for Obama offers a good lesson — the need for heightened sensitivity to the struggles of people with disabilities and their families. Also, be careful on the late night talk shows, where the format encourages loose jabber, as well as an opportunity to humanize or ‘warm up’ political leaders.

Dissing Single-Payer: Wise Strategy or Delaying the Inevitable?

John F. Wasik’s commentary, “No Reason to Demonize U.S. Single-Payer Health” in today’s edition of Bloomberg.com offers a convincing argument that the most promising form of health care reform has been wrongly taken off the table by both the Obama administration and the mainstream media. On Obama’s strategy:

If President Barack Obama wants real change in American health care, he will have to get over the fear of even mentioning single-payer concepts. At his health-care summit last week, only the threat of a demonstration garnered late invitations for Oliver Fein and Congressman John Conyers, two leading proponents of the single-payer plan.
…Obama has said he would keep an open mind on health-care solutions. Yet when asked on March 5 about why he was against single-payer medicine, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs replied: “The president doesn’t believe that’s the best way to achieve the goal of cutting costs and increasing access.”

Wasik supports Rep. John Conyers’ National Health Insurance Act, which has 93 co-sponsors in the House of Reps, and he makes a strong case for the economics behind the plan.
Obama may see single-payer health care reform as a longer-range goal to be achieved in stages. Polls indicate that despite widespread discontent about the current health care system and strong support for single-payer reform, millions of Americans want to keep their current insurance coverage. In a Gallup Poll conducted 11/13-16, for example, 26 percent of respondents said their current coverage was “excellent” and another 41 percent said it was “good.” Obama’s reform team may have concluded that angering them at this stage may imperil reforms that could improve coverage for millions more.
Wasik is dead right however, about the mainstream media’s “sheepish” failure to give single-payer reform a fair hearing. From the Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting study he cites:

Single-payer–a model in which healthcare delivery would remain largely private, but would be paid for by a single federal health insurance fund (much like Medicare provides for seniors, and comparable to Canada’s current system)–polls well with the public, who preferred it two-to-one over a privatized system in a recent survey (New York Times/CBS, 1/11-15/09). But a media consumer in the week leading up to the summit was more likely to read about single-payer from the hostile perspective of conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer than see an op-ed by a single-payer advocate in a major U.S. newspaper.
Over the past week, hundreds of stories in major newspapers and on NBC News, ABC News, CBS News, Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR and PBS’s NewsHour With Jim Lehrer mentioned healthcare reform, according to a search of the Nexis database (2/25/09-3/4/09). Yet all but 18 of these stories made no mention of “single-payer” (or synonyms commonly used by its proponents, such as “Medicare for all,” or the proposed single-payer bill, H.R. 676), and only five included the views of advocates of single-payer–none of which appeared on television.
Of a total of 10 newspaper columns FAIR found that mentioned single-payer, Krauthammer’s syndicated column critical of the concept, published in the Washington Post (2/27/09) and reprinted in four other daily newspapers, accounted for five instances. Only three columns in the study period advocated for a single-payer system (San Diego Union-Tribune, 2/26/09; Boston Globe, 3/1/09; St. Petersburg Times, 3/3/09).
The FAIR study turned up only three mentions of single-payer on the TV outlets surveyed, and two of those references were by TV guests who expressed strong disapproval of it: conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks (NewsHour, 2/27/09) and Republican congressman Darrell Issa (MSNBC’s Hardball, 2/26/09).

And that may be the biggest problem for single-payer advocates — opening up the discussion. The campaign to stigmatize single payer reform as “creeping socialism” is well-underway, and the fear-mongers are ascendant. For now, it’s up to the progressive blogosphere to push the idea on to the front pages and nightly news programs.
Single-payer advocates argue that presidential leadership ought to be about forging consensus, not searching for it and Obama’s best shot at comprehensive health care reform has to be taken sooner, rather than later, while his approval ratings are still high. Yet, Obama’s strategy choices and timing have been pretty good so far. Still, opening up the discussion to include single-payer reform might help make his current proposals more acceptable to moderates. It’s hard to see much of an upside to taking single-payer totally off the table.

Health Care Reform Strategy Taking Shape, Part II

A few addenda to my Tuesday post on healthcare strategy: Sam Stein reports at HuffPo that advocates of a single payer system will have representation at today’s White House Summit on health care reform. Rep John Conyers “a known single-payer advocate,” along with an advocacy group, Physicians for a National Health Program will participate in the summit. The group had put out a press release earlier in the week complaining that,

“Groups representing physicians, nurses, and consumers who advocate for a single-payer system of national health insurance have thus far been excluded from the summit,” says the release. “The Clinton task force on health reform made a similar mistake of excluding the voices of those who support a single-payer system… At a time when public support for single-payer is greater than ever – more than 60 percent in recent polls – we urge President Obama not to make the same mistake.”

Obama “has generally shied-away” from outright endorsing a single-payer approach, although he has made favorable comments about the single-payer concept, according to Stein. Conyers and the progressive physicians group undoubtedly will provide a strong voice at the summit, although there will be 150 participants clamoring for attention.
In yesterday’s New York Times, Sheryl Gay Stolberg’s article “Obama Taps Clinton Ideas but Not Clinton Herself” discusses some possible ways Secretary of State Clinton’s expertise on health care reform could be tapped and notes major differences in the strategy deployed by Presidents Clinton and Obama:

To begin with, the Clinton plan was drafted in secret and delivered to lawmakers as a fait accompli; Mr. Obama is articulating broad principles and leaving the details to Congress…President Bill Clinton waited 11 months after taking office in 1993 to roll out his plan, a delay many Democrats say was deadly. Mr. Obama is forging ahead after six weeks. Mr. Clinton focused heavily on access to care; Mr. Obama is framing the debate in terms of cost. The Clinton plan left Americans worried that they would be forced to switch doctors. Mr. Obama’s message, Mr. Axelrod said, is, “If you are happy with what you have, you can keep it.”
Once the stimulus bill was enacted, Mr. Obama moved quickly to include money for health care changes in his budget, something Mr. Clinton did not do because his economic advisers wanted to focus on deficit reduction first, said Chris Jennings, who was Mr. Clinton’s senior health policy adviser. “That’s really key,” Mr. Jennings said. The delay, he said, “probably was the reason why we were unable to sustain interest and support.”
Mr. Obama, by contrast, made a conscious decision to tackle deficit reduction and health care, for which he set aside $634 billion in his budget, at once. “We’re 16 years later,” Mr. Axelrod said, “and I think the imperative is even greater because of the budget. Health care reform is a fiscal imperative now, not just a moral imperative.”

Thus far, President Obama’s initiatives have received a generally positive response from some sectors of the health care industry, as Ceci Connolly and Dan Eggen report in today’s Washington Post. Eggen and Connolly explain that Obama’s “modest approach” was favorably received by the pharmaceutical industry and “could save the drug companies billions a year compared with price controls,” and,

The lure for the industry is the prospect of tens of millions of new customers: If Obama succeeds in fulfilling his pledge to cover many more Americans, those newly insured people will get checkups, purchase medicine, undergo physical therapy and get surgeries they cannot afford today.

Progressives will be happy to note that Obama’s health plan is not all good with the drug lobby. The authors quote W.J. “Billy” Tauzin, a former congressman who now heads up the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA:”There are things we don’t like about it. But there’s time to discuss all that.” The authors quote other health industry groups that have significant misgivings.
Obama’s Almost Perfect Strategy” in TNR‘s “The Treatment” blog by Jacob Hacker, co-director of the Center for Health, Economic, and Family Security offers four strategy reccomendations for the Administraton. Hacker, editor of “Health at Risk: America’s Ailing Health System–and How to Heal It,” also advises Obama reform team thusly:

It makes sense to keep the targets for political attacks hidden for as long as possible, but that does not mean that Obama and his advisers should start dropping key priorities-priorities that they have already articulated and defended-before the debate begins. For if there is a final lesson from the Clinton reform debacle, it is that the President’s power is greatest as an agenda setter rather than a legislator. Obama should make sure the agenda is set correctly.
So when the administration presses its agenda to leaders in Congress, it shouldn’t sweat the details. But it should make clear that the big three-employer contributions, an Exchange, and a public health insurance plan aren’t details. They are the essence of Obama’s vision of a transformed system.

Stolberg notes that “Experts say the political climate for passing major health care changes is more favorable than ever, with business leaders, pharmaceutical and hospital executives, insurance officials and advocates for patients all agreeing the need is urgent.” Stolberg’s point about Mrs. Clinton’s influence being felt as the battle lines are drawn is duly-noted. Long before Mrs. Clinton, however, Senator Ted Kennedy lead the charge, and the reforms that pass will bear his imprint and reflect his tireless leadership on the issue.