Want Health Care? Go Door to Door or You Won't Get It
By Al Giordano
On May 26 I wrote The Summer of Shove Begins, at a time when pundits and bloggers alike were gnashing teeth over whether US President Barack Obama was overreaching in his now successful agenda to have Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor confirmed by early August and to have a health care bill ready in September.
I suggested, as I pretty much always do, that readers ignore the chattering up above and watch the ground game down below and that will decide how the story goes: “the real history will be made, this summer - as during the last two - by the unsung heroes and heroines: the organizers.”
It was a reference to Organizing for America – Obama’s grassroots political arm – and its organizers (you know who you are) who would spend the summer setting up the battle to be waged in this month of September over the problem that has eluded solution for decades in the United States: the now 46 million Americans who don’t have access to health insurance.
Labor Day weekend is here, so let’s bring the patient in for a seasonal check up.
Two days ago, Organizing for America field marshal Mitch Stewart blasted out an email titled The Real Story of August, (a title that resonates with my own May declaration of where “the real history” of the summer would be made). He wrote:
At the beginning of August, President Obama wrote to the OFA community to challenge us to work hard, break through the noise and give the American people a voice in the fight for health insurance reform.
It wasn't easy: With Congress back home, special interests and partisan attack groups went into overdrive spreading lies, and the media seemed to broadcast any story of conflict or division they could find.
But you accepted the President's challenge -- and delivered.
Our strategy for the month was simple: engage the millions of individuals who know we need change to fight the lies and tell the truth, build support for reform, and ensure that support is highly visible while members of Congress are home gauging public opinion. We continued our methodical, battle-tested approach of volunteers reaching out online and offline in every part of the country. We offered the facts, answered questions and engaged those who were ready to get involved.
Stewart provided the following numbers, as any decent community organizer does: 350 town hall meetings were held over the summer across the country with 70,000 attendees. More than 5,000 group visits to local Congressional offices were organized, along with more than 100,000 phone calls to Congress members in support of the President’s health care proposals.
Mass meetings like those held in Missouri by Senator Claire McCaskill and in Ohio by Senator Sherrod Brown have drawn thousands of health care supporters, always with a screaming but small minority of health care opponents just to keep it lively. A similar dynamic was at play last Monday in Skokie, Illinois, when US Rep. Jan Shakowsky held such a session in a 1,300 seat auditorium. A Field Hand who was there reports there were still 500 left outside waiting in line, including a few screwballs chanting “No public health care!” Various shouting matches ensued. Sounds like democracy to me.
Our strategy is working. We are going to win this thing. Americans will finally get the health insurance reform we all need.
And he added a link to On The Ground reports from mass pro-health care rallies in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Colorado, New Mexico, all in the past week. These were mainly held, notably, in Electoral College “swing states” that were in play last November and will be again in the future. As such, they also contain many “swing districts” where members of Congress of either party are vulnerable to challenge and thus more susceptible to the kind of grassroots organizing and pressure from below that is targeted at them.
It’s a two-fer for the Obama organization, as it is impacting the effort to pass national health insurance while also flexing the muscles of its political organization to keep it in shape for the 2010 midterm and 2012 presidential elections.
On Wednesday night, the President will address a joint session of Congress, mainly about health care, and that will be nationally televised. It will be the official kick-off of the fall political season in the United States.
Meanwhile, the pundits and the blogosphere alike have been more obsessed with the game up above. Every utterance by every “unnamed White House source” in the media about what kind of bill might get voted on in Congress becomes the daily bread of commentary, with the usual doses of Chicken Little feathers flying and armchair quarterbacking.
And while the polls show that the American public strongly favors national health care with a “public option,” the media and Internet cacophony over the specifics of the plan have generated considerable confusion.
Democratic pollster Joel Benenson explains in a memo:
82% of Americans say that the U.S. health care system needs either fundamental changes (55%) or needs “to be rebuilt” (27%). (CBS, Aug. 31)
So far, so good, but:
Only 31% say they “understand the health care reforms under consideration in Congress, while 67% say they find them confusing. (CBS, Aug. 31)
…an NBC poll found that initially, only 36% said that the President’s health care plan is “a good idea” while 42% say it is a bad idea. (NBC, Aug. 17).
And he outlines three “talking points” that, when explained to the public, jump that weak support for a specific plan to a clear majority of 53 percent:
• Requirements on insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions;
• Requiring all but the smallest employers to provide health coverage or pay a percentage of their payroll to help fund coverage for the uninsured
• Tax credits to help families and individuals to help them afford coverage
The good news: If those three points are explained coherently to the public, support hardens for a specific plan. Since Congress responds to polling data, that’s important. Those three talking points are the road map to victory.
The bad news: Neither the corporate media nor the blogosphere are going to clarify any of those three points for the public. They're too obsessed with the sideshows up above to achieve any clarity or coherence on the matter.
And this leaves the whole ballgame in a different set of hands in the coming weeks: yours.
Organizing for America is, simply put, the best and only instrument through which regular everyday people can effectively inform and move public opinion to write the outcome of this battle.
What’s clear is that Organizing for America is healthy and strong as an organization. Every task that it said it would do at the beginning of the summer has been complied with. It is an organization that is walking its talk. And it exudes the same competence and trust in community organizing that characterized the Obama campaign of 2007 and 2008.
A lot of people have asked me recently what to do if they want national health care with a public option. I’ve answered that Organizing for America has the plan and specific instructions for what each individual can do. Some have responded, “but what else can I do?” Wake up. There is no “what else.” That is the path, the only one that leads to possible victory on this long elusive goal.
At this point, any health care proponent that isn’t signed up and carrying out the community organizing tasks charted by Organizing for America is self-marginalized from making history here. You can blog or post Facebook status updates until you are blue in the face and it won't change a thing.
You can argue about whether the US House Progressive Caucus and Speaker Pelosi will really vote against a plan that doesn’t include a full public option (knowing these Congressional progressives for many years, I would put very little faith in their ability to stand firm as a group when push comes to shove), or whether Senator Olympia Snow’s “trigger” option, or US Rep. James Clyburn’s watered-down “pilot program” option will or should be taken seriously, or whether the administration should be talking to one side or another about those proposals.
But none of that chatter about the political game up above means spit when it comes to determining what kind of plan can achieve passage.
It’s crystal clear to me that the White House wants a full public option, but that it is Congress that will determine whether it is attainable in September or October of 2009.
It is also evident that, through Organizing for America, the President has unleashed a gargantuan grassroots effort to push Congress and public opinion toward the best possible plan, preferably with a public option. In that, he's done more than the people shouting at him to "do more" have done.
Whether that public option can be achieved immediately (I disagree with those who opine that if it isn’t done now it will never happen, the arc of the universe bending slowly and such) depends entirely on whether enough members of Congress perceive it in their self interest to vote yea on it.
Thus, shouting at the President about what kind of plan he should discuss or not with Congress is the most futile task imaginable. If you’re for the public option, the President is already on your side to the extent that he has the votes in Congress.
And as ought to be obvious, Internet activism doesn’t move Congress. It never has. One has to go out onto the street, knock door to door, staff phone banks and such to bypass the media-fed confusion (and also to break out of your own demographic market niches), and explain those three talking points above to the people. That, and only that, has a chance of bolstering the poll numbers around a specific health care plan with a public option.
So don’t tell me - as some have - that I have to be blogging every day about this – serving only as an echo chamber for a hundred competent health care policy bloggers that are already doing it – when we all know (or should recognize) that blogging and online social networking doesn’t hold any key to victory here.
I’ll say it again, as it is the central message of this essay: If you want health care with a public option, go door to door with Organizing for America to get it. If you do not go door to door or phone bank or do data entry or other support work for such efforts, you’re not going to get it. Period. End of story: Then it will be your fault, not the president’s.
Those are the big, left, outside and from below observations of a correspondent who has just spent half the summer in Honduras doing the ground level reporting that is made necessary because the President’s Secretary of State has botched the US response to the coup d’etat there in ways that have bought time for the coup regime.
(In the event anyone thinks I’m just just shilling for Obama when I tell you that Organizing for America offers your only path to health care with a public option, I’m really not a happy camper when it comes to his administration’s behavior on my own beat of Latin America, but one must have the wisdom to be able to recognize two different policy fronts as two different battles. If the White House or anybody else would like me to spend more time writing or firing people up about health care, my only demand is that they pull Secretary Clinton’s havoc-wreaking incompetence off of this corner of a country called América. Until then, I’m too busy cleaning up after her mess down here, and doing the supervising job that her superior seems too distracted by the health care battle to conduct.)
So what do I know about the health care debate? To look at events in the United States from outside of them, with the perspective that comes from being apart from the US media and Internet echo chambers, is what The Field has done since it began. That, and administering Chicken Little vaccine shots, which, alas, are not yet offered in any health care legislation. The booster shot I just gave some of you – I’ll repeat: Want health care? Go door to door or you’re not going to get it! – was with the small needle.
And I’ve got a big painful syringe waiting for some of the flock that just seem to be clucking for a smackdown. But for now, let’s see if the little needle works.