Tuesday, January 17, 2017

ACA defenders don't need to "learn from" the Tea Party. They beat them in 2009-10

The fight to save the ACA is on, and all across the land, progressive groups large and small are mobilizing the law's supporters to let their senators and reps know the cost of dis-insuring 20 million people -- more, if Republicans block-grant Medicaid and/or collapse the individual market, less if they pass some poorly funded and designed facsimile of the ACA.

In reaction to the 35 "protect our care" rallies staged across the land on Sunday (Jan. 15), I keep seeing sentiments to the effect of  "progressives are learning from the Tea Party."  That's a half-truth at best, in that supporters of the ACA-in-progress fought protestors at least to a draw in 2009-2010 (proponents won in the sense that they got the ACA passed, but they did (briefly) have a 60-vote Senate majority and a large House majority). The ACA would never have got anywhere near the finish line without the most massive grass-roots advocacy ever achieved.

The Tea Party protests against the ACA-in-progress at Town Hall meetings in the long hot summer of 2009 have become part of American political lore. What’s less well known is that progressive groups supporting health reform fought back on the spot, often with equal or superior manpower and local impact. The media preferred the screamers, of course.

There was a massive coordinated effort led by Health Care for American Now (HCAN), an umbrella organization for groups committed to universal healthcare, formed in the runup to the 2008 election. Member groups’ ability to muster supporters provided vital support that kept many representatives and senators committed to passing the bill that became the ACA.

Richard Kirsch, who headed HCAN during the effort to pass the ACA, recounts in his retrospective book Fighting for Our Health incident after incident in which HCAN member groups provided crucial support when it counted.  Here’s one:
SEIU’s North Carolina Director Dana Cope reported that most of the 800 people in attendance at the Durham town hall supported reform. “Congressman Price wouldn’t stop thanking us. It got lots of positive publicity for him. It emboldened him; he had a meeting, and lo and behold, people supported reform! He found out that it’s OK to vote for this – people want it.”
Looking back at the long hot summer, Kirsch cites at length a column by E.J. Dionne written in the immediate aftermath, on Sept. 3, 2009:
Health-care reform is said to be in trouble partly because of those raucous August town-hall meetings in which Democratic members of Congress were besieged by shouters opposed to change.

But what if our media-created impression of the meetings is wrong? What if the highly publicized screamers represented only a fraction of public opinion? What if most of the town halls were populated by citizens who respectfully but firmly expressed a mixture of support, concern and doubt?

There is an overwhelming case that the electronic media went out of their way to cover the noise and ignored the calmer (and from television's point of view "boring") encounters between elected representatives and their constituents.
In the home stretch, when Democrats having passed the Senate bill, lost their filibuster-proof Senate majority and so could only incorporate the House's input (and necessary fixes) via budget reconciliation, HCAN kept up the pressure rep by rep:
The HCAN coalition in Colorado, along with Markey’s supporters in the Democratic Party, continued to keep up the pressure on the Congresswoman. Publicly, we delivered our message fairly gently: we are disappointed in you and next time we expect you do the right thing. Privately, key labor unions told her that their continued support would turn on how she voted on the final bill. Before New Year’s Eve, constituents with personal stories about health care delivered waves of handwritten holiday cards to her Colorado offices. In January, they started a weekly program called “Markey Monday,” so that she’d be guaranteed to get a large volume of calls in support of reform at least once a week. As the end neared, Markey was telling people privately that she would vote for the bill, but she still hadn’t made a public statement.

On March 17, HCAN organized a big rally at Markey’s Fort Collins office. As Tricia Smith, the woman who had to live with horrifying pain for eight years before she qualified for Medicare, told me, “We marched down the street to Markey’s office. As we were headed south we saw people with signs heading north to the office and we thought uh-oh, here comes the tea partiers. But it was another group supporting reform. Markey’s staff brought in a few of us to talk with them. The phones were ringing constantly when we were in there with calls calling for support of health care. The next day she came out in support of the bill."
HCAN was disbanded after the ACA passed. I've been told it's being reconstituted (checking on this). In the meantime, national groups like Families USA, the SEIU and other major unions,  the UHCAN umbrella group, and local groups like BlueWaveNJ (with which I've saddled up) are deploying the same techniques. Progressives know how to do this.

* In discussion of Kirsch's book I'm self-plagiarizing a bit from my Jan. 11 post 6 Ways You Can Resist Inst-Repeal of Obamacare over at healthinsurance.org

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