A Democratic Civil War? Grassroots Groups, Blogs Fight to Keep Public Option Alive

Art Levine

With the Senate Finance Committee’s defeat Tuesday of the public option amendments, there’s now the looming potential threat of an open revolt by grassroots liberal Democrats if the public option is indeed killed, especially since nearly two-thirds of the public favors the measure.

If Obama takes the public option off the table, we’re looking at a civil war within the Democratic Party,” says Charles Chamberlain, the political director of the million-member Democracy for America (DFA), founded by Howard Dean, that’s helped raise nearly $200,000 for attack ads against centrists.

While there’s still a strong interest in pushing for the public option across a range of groups, unfortunately for progressives, in-fighting and finger-pointing about tactics among some key activists and political leaders continues especially over the value of running attack ads against centrist or Blue Dog Democrats, including Senators Max Baucus (D-Mt.), Ben Nelson(D-NE), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.).

Late this week, after the vote, anger at Democrats and new pressure targeting Harry Reid for failing to push for the public option surfaced, even as some state and local activists wonder how effective attack ads will be at unseating obstructionist Democrats.

Reid this week reassured constituents that some form of a public option would be in the final bill, then appeared to back away from that commitment, Huffington Post and a local newspaper reported. What he hasn’t done so far — unlike over 60 members of the House — was to draw a line in the sand” over the public option.

In contrast, as I reported at the Daily Beast (I didn’t write the headline):

In drawing a line in the sand over the public option, DFA has been joined by the new 200,000-member Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), fundraising to aid liberal candidates and causes – and the left-leaning blogosphere that was instrumental in Obama’s campaign. Increasingly frustrated, discouraged by the seeming timidity of some traditional Democratic constituency groups in advocating for the public option, and growing disenchanted with the Obama administration’s refusal to push for it or behind the scenes effort to quash it, they’re spoiling for a fight. Their sudden renewal of activism has drawn howls from those Blue Dog and centrist” Democrats targeted by the ads, and from White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who has emerged as their symbol of administration dithering or betrayal.

Still, one of the most influential liberal players, Moveon​.org Political Action, boasting five million members, did more than challenge the conventional wisdom that the public option is doomed. The group launched a fresh wave of radio ads attacking the three Democrats who voted against the public option amendments: Senators Kent Conrad (D-ND), Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), and Max Baucus (D-MT). Senator Baucus sided with the special interests and the insurance companies,” the ad said.

The DFA and the 200,000-member Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) also chose a harder line than Health Care for American Now to promote the public option — an appeal for money to pummel” Senators Olympia Snowe and Max Baucus with TV ads. Their email alert raised $125,000 in just one day, PCCC’s 33-year-old co-founder, Adam Green, told me. Senator Baucus, whose side are you on?” demands its TV commercial.

And yet it seems that some liberal groups continue to mute their concerns about legislation without a pubic opton. Jane Hamsher at Firedoglake reported:

Unity 09 just sent this around to its members groups, giving them talking points about the Baucus bill:

From: Kellie Dupree
Sent: Friday, October 02, 2009 11:05 AM
To: Kellie Dupree
Subject: Talking Points: Senate Finance Committee’s Work On Health Insurance Reform

Talking Points: Senate Finance Committee’s Work On Health Insurance Reform

· Last night, thanks to the diligence and commitment of Senator Baucus and members of the Senate Finance Committee, we reached another milestone in our effort to pass health insurance reform.

· After long hours of thoughtful deliberation and vigorous debate the final congressional committee involved in shaping health care legislation has finished the process of crafting their reform proposal. 

· In the process they have shown a willingness to compromise.

o They have considered hundreds of amendments, and incorporated many of the best ideas from both parties. 

· This milestone marks a culmination of tireless efforts over the better part of this year by the five committees and many of members of Congress involved in health reform – holding numerous hearings and bi-partisan meetings; reaching out to stakeholders across the spectrum; and striving to find common ground. 

· As a result of this work, we are now closer than ever before to finally passing reform that will offer security to those who have coverage and affordable insurance to those who don’t.

Kellie Dupree
Unity 09

No public option – no big deal. The President gets to say he supports the public option, because he doesn’t want responsibility for ditching it (even though the only arm he’s twisting is Rockefeller’s, to get him to vote for the bill without a public option). But the leash isn’t quite that long for groups who get to sacrifice their progressive credibility to the cause of bailing out the insurance industry.

Who is in Unity 09? According to Ben Smith:

The online-based MoveOn​.org is a central player in the nascent organization, but other groups involved in planning Unity 09 span a broad spectrum of interests, from the American Civil Liberties Union to the National Council of La Raza to Planned Parenthood, as well as labor unions and environmental groups.


Along with the groups previously mentioned, others involved in planning discussions include the Sierra Club, Media Matters for America, and Health Care for America Now.

It is going to make it awfully hard for 40 [potentially 60+] progressive members to hold together and stop a bill with no public option from going through,” Hamsher contends.

That’s because she says none of the insider liberal groups have supported the House Progressive Caucus’s 60 or so members who’ve already gone on record saying they can’t support a bill without that provision. 

The truth is a bit more complex. None of the groups are going to oppose the progressive members’ willingness to walk if there’s no public option in a House or final bill, my sources tell me. And the AFL-CIO’s Richard Trumka has sent strong signals that he can’t support a bill without a public option. And my interview with US Action leader Alan Charney, the grass-roots organizing arm of Health Care for America Now, indicatesthat there’s now an internal debate going on within his organization of whether or not to support a bill without a public option.

While the major groups are mulling what to do, the scrappier hard-line progressive groups and bloggers are raising money for more ads to pressure Democrats to support a public option. For instance, TPMDC reported yesterday:

Major progressive organizations see a golden opportunity to resurrect the public option, and are preparing a campaign, which will include television ads in Nevada, to pressure Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to get on board.

As I’ve noted a number of times, the public option will not be in the Senate Finance Committee’s health care bill, but it can re-emerge at three key points in the legislative process. Among those, one of the most important is the next step, when Reid merges the Finance bill with a more liberal proposal from the Senate HELP Committee. If he adopts the latter panel’s public option, it would dramatically alter the nature of the legislative battle, shifting the onus from liberals, who have been doggedly fighting to include the public option in the Senate bill, on to conservative Democrats, who would have to decide whether their opposition to the popular measure is so strong that they’d be willing to join the GOP in a health care filibuster and tank the entire reform effort.

Jane Hamsher’s FDL Action PAC is one of the groups considering running ads prodding Reid on the public option.

But the attack ads aimed at Blue Dog and centrist Democrats may not be the silver bullet for pressuring them to support a public option, according state activists and local Democratic leaders I interviewed. They’re especially doubtful the new hard-hitting ads will accomplish one of the main goals in such states as Arkansas: luring primary challengers,” as the influential blogger Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake describes it. The ad targeting Senator Blanche Lincoln and Rep. Mike Ross, funded with nearly $80,000 for the state’s low-cost TV market by Hamsher’s FDL Action PAC, declared: Act like Democrats – or we’ll find someone who will.” That’s greeted skeptically by activists and progressives in such states as Arkansas and Nebraska.

Even so, he and other state-based activists who are dubious about the electoral impact of these ads still welcome them for raising public awareness about the importance of health reform. For instance, Brian Osborn, the Democratic Party Chairman for rural Phelps County in south-central Nebraska, says of a series of attack ads, sponsored by Change Congress and other groups, targeting Sen. Ben Nelson for being a sell-out” to the insurance industry: They woke people up!”

Still, it’s a very conservative state where a majority of the public, according to a recent Daily Kos-sponsored poll, is opposed to the public option. Nelson voted against the public option during Tuesday’s committee’s vote, and last weekend, he even said he may not support any health reform unless it won 65 votes in the Senate. I think he’s talking at town halls and finding that people in Nebraska don’t want him to support Obama’s health plan. It’s political suicide,” says Ben Pettigrew, the Chair of County Chairs for the state Democratic Party. Both Pettigrew and Osborn have asked Nelson directly whether he’d vote for cloture, and he’s been non-committal, saying it depended on what is in the final bill.

And despite the strategic differences among some progressives and Democratic leaders, many progressive groups share the same goal of pushing for a public option – and, at least among mainstream groups, a respect for the harder-line tactics of left-wing activist groups and bloggers. For instance, the insider” progressives I interviewed are surprisingly supportive, if sometimes privately, of the left-wingers’ hard-line efforts to keep pressure on Democrats to support a public option, while defending their efforts to run an outsider/​insider” strategy.

Alan Charney, the program director for USAction, the lead grass-roots organizing arm of HCAN, says, We want to be at the table, and the same time we have operations that function in very aggressive ways to put as much positive pressure on legislators to do the right thing.” Despite heavy media coverage of the Tea-Baggers” at town halls in early August, his group and its allies ultimately turned out 45,000 people at 1,000 congressional outreach events over the summer, they say.

But he concedes, The capacity of the right to create fear with misrepresentation and lies was more than I anticipated” – and that his coalition also delayed for too long efforts to tap into public anger over insurance companies with a systematic campaign that started only this month. Apparently, the sight of screaming Tea Baggers made them realize that they might consider exploiting populist rage, too.

That has started with a new organizing drive called, Big Insurance: Sick of It,” that’s coupled with effective ads aiming to go after major insurance companies and build more support – if perhaps late – for the public option.

Here’s a press release from HCAN describing events last week:

On Tuesday September 22nd, thousands of health care reform advocates across the country held anti-insurance protests branded Big Insurance: Sick Of It.” Armed with signs and stories of people harmed by health insurance companies’ bad practices, organizers from Health Care for America Now (HCAN) – the nation’s largest health care campaign – led by partners from MoveOn​.org, SEIU, AFL-CIO, Campaign for Community Change, and USAction rallied outside health insurance headquarters and satellite offices demanding insurers support real reform that makes good health care truly affordable and includes a strong national public health insurance option.

Flagship events targeted UnitedHealthcare in Minneapolis, WellPoint in Indianapolis, and Cigna in Philadelphia where former health insurance executive Wendell Potter addressed a crowd of 400. More than 200 people turned out for a protest in front of Aetna headquarters in Hartford, and protestors confronted WellPoint CEO Angela Braly at a speech in Milwaukee.

Seniors targeted Highmark Medicare Services in Williamsport, PA. More than 100 people turned out on their lunch break to rally outside Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield in St. Louis, MO. In Las Vegas, Ruth Quigley spoke of her brother-in-law who died of cancer because he could not afford health insurance, and therefore, consistent health care. The Wall Street Journal reported more than 500 protestors rallied outside UnitedHealth Group in Manhattan while others targeted Coventry Insurance in Charleston, WV, North Dakota Blue Cross Blue Shield in Bismarck, and Anthem Blue Cross in San Francisco.

At the same time HCAN has launched an effective series of ads focusing on the abuses of Big Insurance, with the message that If The Insurance Companies Win, You Lose.” The question is whether all this will be enough to save the public option this late in the game:

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Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate​.com, Salon​.com and numerous other publications.
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