Dems, Unions, Allies Pushing Back For Reform in Ads, Town Halls, Attacks on Blue Dogs

Art Levine

While the astro-turf” generated anger targeting health reform continued to grab headlines, Democrats and progressives are pushing back on several fronts. Their counter-punching includes everything from massive ad buys to pro-reform viral emails to aggressive PR about productive Congressional Town Hall meetings that featured strong liberal turnouts.

The President is pressing a new PR offensive in Town Halls scheduled for Montana and Colorado Friday and Saturday, as the White House and Democrats are urging supporters to turn out in large numbers. Groups including Health Care for America Now are posting event calendars online and contacting thousands of activists as part of their plan to step up support for Obama’s reform goals.

On top of all that, a top union leader, the presumptive incoming AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, and former DNC chair Gov. Howard Dean both took the toughest stances yet by influential progressive leaders against Blue Dog Democrats who are thwarting what liberals see as meaningful health reform.

A new political factor now enters the health care debate: a re-assertion of political clout by the progressives who helped elect Obama president. As reported on Daily Kos, and cited widely by pro-labor activists, Trumka went to address the Sheet Metal Workers International Association (SMWIA), the first union to suspend all donations to Democrats until both the Employee Free Choice Act and a health care package with a public option passes Congress. While Trumka didn’t go that far, he sent unmistakable signals that unions won’t be offering a blank check to Democrats regardless of their political positions:

As the Daily Kos diarist, a SMWIA staffer, reported:

In very plain and frank language, Trumka warns the conservative Democrats who have wavered on labor and health care reform about the consequences of what working people will do when they are stabbed in the back after working so hard for these Democrats during election time:

And then there’s that other group: those fair weather friends who can’t seem to decide which side they’re on. I’m talking about politicians who love to have our help come election time, but, always seem to forget us after the votes are counted.”

In case anyone wonders who Trumka is talking about, he makes it pretty clear:

You know who I mean. They’ve been in the news a lot lately.
They’re the ones who say that they’re all for health care reform – so long as it doesn’t offend the insurance industry and the drug companies.
They’re the same people who’re saying that the way to pay for it isn’t to tax the rich; it’s to tax our health care benefits!”

And in case those politicians think working people will just shrug their shoulders and give them handfuls of more campaign cash and volunteers, Trumka iterates:

We need to send them a special message: it’s that you may have forgotten what the labor movement did to get you elected; but, by God, we never will! And if you stab us in the back on health care this year don’t you dare ask us for our support next year!”

Former Governor Dean, a vocal champion of the public health care option, doesn’t mince words, either, about the political peril facing Democrats who won’t back genuine health reform. As first reported by Sam Stein at Huffington Post:

Former Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean fired one of the clearest warning shots at hesitant Democratic lawmakers on Thursday, insisting that if the party was unable to produce a health care bill with a public plan, there would be electoral consequences.

I do think there will be primaries as the result of all this, if the bill doesn’t pass with a public option,” Dean said, in a phone interview with the Huffington Post.

While Blue Dogs and conservative Senators are facing increasing pressure from the left and unions, they’re also being aided by liberal organizing efforts designed to offer support for reform at Town Halls — and in a preliminary $12 million ad buy promoting Obama’s health reform agenda in swing states. Among the unlikely bedfellows supporting this new targeted ad campaign are the SEIU, the leading pharmaceutical trade association, PhRMA, and the liberal Families USA (via Politico) :

A new coalition on Thursday launched $12 million in television ads to support President Barack Obama’s health reform plan, in the opening wave of a planned tens of millions of dollars this fall.

The new group, funded largely by the pharmaceutical industry, is called Americans for Stable Quality Care. It includes some odd bedfellows: the American Medical Association, FamiliesUSA, the Federation of American Hospitals, PhRMA and SEIU, the service employees’ union…

The group is likely to be the biggest spender in support of health reform. The campaign will serve as a counterweight to the critics at town meetings, which are getting saturation news coverage while Congress is out of town.

In a reversal from former President Bill Clinton’s 1993-94 health care debacle, the group’s campaign is likely to mean that White House supporters keep the upper hand on the airwaves.

PhRMA’s participation is key, because the group has promised to kick in as much as $150 million for advertising and grass-roots activity to help pass the president’s plan.

The debut ad is meant to shore up support among the conservative House Blue Dog Democrats and to target swing senators. So it’s airing in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota and Virginia. The first buy is expected to run for two weeks, with a weekly spend of around $3 million.

The drug industry-subsidized ad was launched on the same day as one lobbyist’s memo about a reported deal between the White House and PhRMA over limiting government’s ability to rein in drug prices surfaced in Huffington Post. Yet there are conflicting accounts about the scope of such a deal and whether Congress would even go along with it.

There’s no sign that the unlikely coalition supporting the ad buy have crafted any kind of backroom deal abandoning support for reforming drug costs. The ad, by having the support of some health industry groups, could help prevent their spending on negative ads and further isolate the health insurance industry in the legislative battles in the fall. Here’s the first ad:

It’s selling a message of quality, affordable health care you can count on, including allowing coverage for pre-existing conditions, to the majority of the public that already has health care. And by promoting a positive, specific message that also attacks the unfair practices of the health insurance industry, it’s potentially helping build support for health reform that’s been undermined by the rowdy, fanatical protesters.

Now, groups like Health Care for America Now are spurring their allied members to show up in greater numbers to back centrists, as they did on Wednesday for Sen. Specter. As the Christian Science Monitor reported:

Yet in Kittanning, Penn., Thursday, Sen. Arlen Specter got a more balanced reception. After a battering at a town hall on Tuesday, 20 of the first 30 questions,” Senator Specter faced Wednesday were from healthcare sympathizers, says Marc Stier, Pennsylvania state director of Health Care for America Now.

We got there really early,” adds Mr. Stier, whose national coalition group is now the leading pro-reform organizer. On Tuesday, Stier acknowledges, most of his activists arrived too late to get a seat.

Before the town halls began, moderate Democrats from relatively conservative districts and states were loath to get too close to groups like Health Care for America Now (HCAN), fearing that opponents could tar them as liberals.

That is changing, Stier says: Blue dogs [conservative Democrats] who were keeping HCAN at a distance, are now asking us to help get people to their events. They’re scared, and they want our help.”

And as the Democratic National Committee and Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared in press releases Thursday, the views of Americans seeking real answers — not shoutfests — and reform are increasingly being heard at Town Halls. As cited in Roll Call:

The DNC released a statement arguing that outside the echo chamber of 24-hour cable news, Americans all across the country are attending town halls, holding coffee shop conversations and engaging in respectful, honest debates about the best way to achieve health insurance reform.”

The DNC release pointed to events in North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, California, Indiana, Ohio, Washington state and other areas that have not featured the kind of ugly protests that have been the focus on national news reports.

Pelosi’s office, supplemented by similar press releases and media outreach by progressive groups, pointed to successful or at least reasoned Town Hall appearances where activists could stand up for reform:

Here are just a few stories about productive town halls and other conversations that are moving the nation’s debate about health insurance reform forward…

Virginia – Congressman Tom Perriello (VA-05)

Charlottesville Daily Progress Perriello’s town hall mostly civil

Unlike many other such town hall meetings hosted by Democratic lawmakers, Perriello’s forum was not disrupted by vocal opponents of the health care proposals…

If anything, the crowd at Perriello’s town hall was mostly in favor of health insurance reform.

Perriello said he welcomes supporters and opponents at his constituent meetings, dubbed Tom in Your Town’ events. The forums were originally meant to be an opportunity to meet one-on-one with the freshman congressman, but turned into town hall meetings after constituents expressed a desire for an open town hall-style event.” [8/12/09]

Georgia – Congressman Hank Johnson (GA-04)

Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionStrong but civil discussion marks Georgia health care event

…the nearly 2,000 people who gathered Monday night at George Perimeter College in Clarkston offered a lesson to the rest of the nation on how civil discourse doesn’t have to spiral into civil disobedience…

Johnson set the tone for the evening when, from the stage, he said, We are here to have an open and respectful dialogue.’

In the main auditorium that held 500 people, applause for health care reform clearly outweighed any boos or jeers…” [8/11/09]…

The story that isn’t being told in cable media’s over-reaction to the GOP mobs is that of reasonable Americans coming out to understand more about health care reform and to promote change:

Help In These Times Celebrate & Have Your Gift Matched!

In These Times is proud to share that we were recently awarded the 16th Annual Izzy Award from the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. The Izzy Award goes to an independent outlet, journalist or producer for contributions to culture, politics or journalism created outside traditional corporate structures.

Fellow 2024 Izzy awardees include Trina Reynolds-Tyler and Sarah Conway for their joint investigative series “Missing In Chicago," and journalists Mohammed El-Kurd and Lynzy Billing. The Izzy judges also gave special recognition to Democracy Now! for coverage that documented the destruction wreaked in Gaza and raised Palestinian voices to public awareness.

In These Times is proud to stand alongside our fellow awardees in accepting the 2024 Izzy Award. To help us continue producing award-winning journalism a generous donor has pledged to match any donation, dollar-for-dollar, up to $20,000.

Will you help In These Times celebrate and have your gift matched today? Make a tax-deductible contribution to support independent media.

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.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.