The (Political) Guns of August: Make-or-Break for Progressives on Healthcare

Art Levine

Activists hold signs as they march on Capitol Hill after a rally on healthcare July 30, 2009 in Washington, DC.

The fight over healthcare this August will prove to be critical to the future of both healthcare reform and the Employee Free Choice Act, as labor unions and progressive groups such as Health Care for America Now prepare for ramped-up grass-roots campaigns.

With right-wing misinformation and smears about the President’s healthcare
plan spreading — whether lies that the plan is a plot to kill old people or claims it is government-run socialized medicine that would wipe out private health insurance — progressives and labor groups have an increasingly important challenge ahead.

They not only have to fight lies, but accomplish something just as daunting: rally enough supporters to overwhelm the health industry fighting any reforms while it serves donations to Blue Dog Democrats and like-minded legislators.

We have to have sustained pressure,” says one union lobbyist. You have to have ground troops activated.”

What’s especially critical is that labor unions and progressives aren’t going to let granny-killing” smears go unchallenged, no matter how absurd liberals may find it. For instance, liberal talk-show host Stephanie Miller jokingly played the part on-air of an old lady wondering: Rush Limbaugh told me I’d be forced to pay for the medications to euthanize me.” But the reality she was parodying is just as extreme:

In states such as Arkansas, Louisiana and Pennsylvania, organizations such as AFL-CIO and SEIU are planning everything from town halls on the economy to recruiting small businessmen to write editorials and
speak out for healthcare reform or workers’ rights.

Gerry Shea, the AFL-CIOs lead healthcare advocate, notes, We’ll be doing intense conversations with the people back home, public education of our members, and they’ll be contacting their [Congressional] members.” Shea adds, There’s so much confusion out there, and we’re going to say, let’s just go through with this and tell them the point: What’s in it for you?”

One major goal: ending the abuses of insurance companies, including barring people from getting insurance if they have pre-existing conditions.

Indeed, sharpening the attacks on insurance companies is becoming a heightened theme by Democrats as they look for an advantage against Republicans on the warpath to block reform.

On Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, echoing President Obama but in
blunter terms, lashed out at the highly unpopular companies:

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is dramatically escalating her attack on health insurance companies as she rallies House Democrats to go on offense against the industry over the August recess.

They are the villains in this,” Pelosi said Thursday of the insurance companies. They have been part of the problem in a major way. They are doing everything in their power to stop a public option from happening.”

Pelosi’s broadside comes as she tries to pull her fractious Caucus together after a compromise that Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) struck Wednesday with conservative members of his panel set off howls among liberals. The Speaker on Thursday morning gave what aides in attendance described as a fiery speech to House Democrats, urging them to take the fight to insurance companies over the five-week recess scheduled to begin Friday.

She then laid out the line of attack to reporters gathered outside her office, blasting the industry as immoral.”

They have had a good thing going for a long time at the expense of the American people and the health of our country,” she said…”

It’s a view that some progressive analysts share. As Mike Lux, a leading progressive strategist and author of The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be, pointed out:

Speaking of the August recess, while I am not thrilled that the House put off the floor vote until after it happens, that is also not a disaster for us. But it is a test for those of us who believe in serious healthcare reform. The battle over who wins the organizing and message fight in the August recess— grassroots reformers or the astroturf insurance lobby in league with right wingers everywhere — will decide the fate of healthcare reform, pure and simple…

Everything is at stake here, as I wrote yesterday: if we don’t win this fight, the Obama Presidency, Democratic prospects in the 2010 election, and any hopes we have for victories on other big issues are all in deep, deep trouble. But we still have a real shot at winning this battle, and now is when we need to pull out all the stops to do it.

Unions, part of a broader progressive coalition, are prepared to go to battle in key swing states, and promote the message for healthcare reform and the pro-union Employee Free Choice Act as both vital to the nation’s economic well-being.

Much of August will be focused on healthcare, but there’s significant overlap— and often the same organizers promoting healthcare and the Employee Free Choice Act.

SEIU, among other labor and progressive groups, shares similar goals and tactics with the AFL-CIO and its sister community
organizing arm, Working America, over healthcare reform and the Employee Free Choice Act. Working America, for instance, has been leading door-to-drives and outreach for healthcare reform and the Employee Free Choice Act.

And here’s how SEIUs Change that Works describes its plans:

At more than 400 events, from nurse and doctor town halls and large rallies to canvasses and phone banks, wherever members of Congress are, SEIU members will be as well. From Iowa to Indianapolis , from an ambulance tour in Miles City, Mont., to bake sales in North Dakota; we are letting them know that working families need affordable, quality healthcare this year and the Employee Free Choice Act, a check on corporate greed that would allow workers to bargain with their employers for better job security, wages and benefits.

Our message this recess is clear. There are consequences to not changing the status quo: consequences for families, consequences for our economy and consequences for members of Congress.

If progressives and labor unions don’t overcome the right-wing spin machine, a troublesome fate could be in store for progressive legislation, as one writer at Firedoglake’s The Seminal pointed out:

The one reason why it was so important that Democrats NOT delay the passage of healthcare reform [is] what’ll be waiting for these Members of Congress when they go home on recess. They’ll get hit by hundreds of TV ads from the murder-by-spreadsheet industry, organized conservative protests in front of their offices, and angry phone calls from votes scared about socialized health care.” Then they come back to Congress, scared to pass real health care reform, so they end up passing fake health care reform without a public option or a national insurance exchange.

So the need to counter misinformation and sell the need for healthcare reform becomes even more urgent in August. It’s a sign of how important grass-roots activism by progressives will be in August through such organizations as Health Care for America Now and the successor to Obama’s campaign operation, Organizing for America.

As the Organizing for America (OFA) action center pleads:

Our representatives are returning home for their August break, yet the health insurance reform debate is far from settled. We can still pass real health insurance reform in 2009, but we need to use every day we have to build strong, local support so that when Congress goes back to Washington, they know they have to deliver.

So OFA volunteers like you will be knocking on doors, making calls to neighbors, and attending public events to build the local support for healthcare reform we need to pass a strong final bill. If you can spare an hour or two for health insurance reform, now is when we need you.

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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.
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.
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