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6 posts from August 2009

August 27, 2009

The Health Care Clip Every American Should Watch: "We Need Help!"

As the battle heats up to pass meaningful health care reform with a robust public option, a video has emerged that captures the raw emotions of Americans suffering under the cruelty of the current system. More than any video I have seen, this short clip amplifies the moral imperative for reform capable of freeing us all from the health insurance nightmare where nameless, faceless bureaucrats routinely tosses our loved ones in the trash heap at the precise moment we need the most care--a system that has come to symbolize the banality of evil in our time. 

On August 25, CNN's Rich Sanchez introduced a video recorded at a town hall meeting in Oklahoma hosted by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK).  In the clip, a constituent begins her question with a desperate plea, "Senator Coburn, we need help!"  Her voice is then overwhelmed by the kind of choking tears that reveal a person reduced whose frustration and suffering  has brought them to the last possible chance to save the life of the person they love more than anyone else in the world. She then explains her situation:

My husband has traumatic brain injury.  His health insurance will not cover him to eat and drink. What I need to know is, are you going to help him so he can eat and drink?

As the questioner's courageous voice fades into heaving sobs, Senator Coburn calmly responds,"Yeah, we'll help. The first thing we'll do is see what we can do individually to help you through our office."  Initially, Coburn seems headed towards a reassuring resolution: a woman asks a representative of government for help and he responds that his office will act.  But then he concludes with the following:

But the other thing that's missing in this debate is us as neighbors helping people who need are help. We tend to--the idea that government is the solution to all our problems is an inaccurate, a very inaccurate statement.

Coburn answers an American's desperate plea for help to care for her husband, in other words, by repeating the anti-government mantra of the Republican Party.  The political calculus in Coburn's words hang in the room room like an icy cloud.  

In an unfortunate quirk of timing, the tragic passing of Senator Edward Kennedy created a tidal wave of media coverage that has all but buried this powerful video clip from gaining the kind of viewership it truly deserves.  

But in an age where YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and good old fashioned email can often broadcast a video faster than traditional media, it really is possible for every American to see this clip.

Since watching the video of the Oklahoma town hall I have forwarded it to thousands of people.  Spreading the call for reform has never been simpler.

But by showing the video, we do much more than shine a light on the banality of health insurance evil, we also do our part to tip the narrative towards a more American set of values. 

Until now, the health care debate has been pushed a larger story about "government run insurance will take away our freedom."  The opponents of reform insist that a public option will lead to tyranny and the end of America.  The tears in this video bring us to a new big picture:  "Americans are not free so long as they can be deprived of care by a cruel industry."  Those who advocate passionately for a public option can now insist with clear evidence that an America without health care reform is an America broken by fear.

One woman's tears and the courage to stand up and tell her story could give an opportunity to us all to push the kind of change this country so desperately needs.  And all we need to do is show this video to everyone we know.

August 22, 2009

Obama Calls "Public Option" Source of "Confusion" in Reform Debate

In the latest signal that he will not echo voter pleas for a robust "public option," President Obama used his Weekly Address to draw attention away from the one issue that has galvanized the most ardent supporters of health insurance reform in America.   

Emphasizing that the main goal of his reform initiative is "consumer protections," President Obama then went on to say that much of the " fears about government-run health care" were a result of "confusion over what’s called the public option" (link).  

Contrary to President Obama's argument, however, there is mounting evidence that the passionate demand for a "public option" has finally produced a clear, symbolic focus with the potential to rally widespread support for a healthcare bill amongst the majority of the President's supporters.  In this perspective, the problem in the health care reform debate is not public fears stemming from a focus on the "public option," but the vague, evolving language used by the Obama administration in its attempt to rally support for health insurance reform from the health insurance industry itself.

The new effort to switch focus away from the public option comes at a time when grassroots organizations are leading the public in a highly visible, fast growing movement to make the public option the essential element of any health care reform bill.

Part of the reason why these outcries have reshaped the debate in favor of reform is the nature of the phrase "public option" itself.

Whereas the Obama administration has repeatedly pushed the language of economics and accounting in its attempt to rally support for "consumer protections," advocates for the "public option" have invoked a much broader narrative about health as a moral good.  The phrase "public option," thus, is gaining ground as the most straightforward and sensible solution to the unethical business practices of insurance companies that cause harm to individuals when they are most vulnerable. 

Obama's decision to fend off the cries for a robust public option, rather than join them, suggests that the White House is reluctant to embrace the political risk of treating healthcare reform as a popular movement, choosing instead to approach it as an exercise in legislative negotiation.

For many Obama supporters who supported President Obama's candidacy because they believed he would rally the public to pass a reform agenda, the White House focus on legislative chess in the healthcare debate has resulting in grumbling about whether or not President Obama is the President they voted for.  Fairly or unfairly, Obama now faces a rising tide of doubt in his administration from the very supporters who have backed him most steadfastly since the election.

Many of these supporters are now using internet tools and small donations to signal that their support of healthcare reform anchored in a robust public option would be stronger than their support for an Obama administration willing to negotiate away or weaken a public option.

Thus, weeks before any final bill has actually been written,  the healthcare debate has already brought about the most significant change in the American political landscape since Obama won the Iowa caucus to become the leading contender for the Democratic nomination.

The idealists who elected the President are siding with their ideals rather than their candidate.

August 17, 2009

"Public Option" R.I.P.?

I just returned from a weekend at the Netroots Nation 2009 convention in Pittsburgh, where I spoke with a good number of people about the state of the health insurance reform effort.  Sadly, as a result of those conversations, I am now able to explain why a "public option" is not going to happen in health insurance reform this time around.

The big issue is that the town hall meetings of the last few weeks have frightened Democratic members of Congress into no longer believing the previous polling that showed widespread  support for a public option.  Prior to the town halls, many Democratic members of Congress who supported a public option believed that the polling showed a hunger for it in their districts.  The anti-reform drama of the town halls has displaced polling in Congressional thinking, and so they no longer believe they are able to support a public option.

In terms of what the folks in Congress who attended Netroots Nation said, they all seemed to repeat this same general argument:  (1) they support a public option, but (2) unless they hear a vocal demand for it rising up from their districts, then a public option "is not possible."   Then, they urged Democratic activists to do whatever they could to turn out vocal demands for a public option at a local level.

From these conversations, I extrapolated the following: two months ago, Democrats in Congress did not  need to see or hear any support to vote for a public option because they believed the polling--the dispassionate statistics--was enough to show a widespread hunger for that kind of reform of the health insurance system.  After the town hall shouting and screaming, these same members of Congress no longer trust the statistics. 

So, not only is a public option dead, but the right-wing has learned how to undermine the authority of polling in a policy debate.  The right has also found a major weakness in how Congressional Democrats advance their agenda: unwilling to use dramatic rhetoric and political theatrics to win, they can easily be manipulated by them.

All this leads me to a pretty dire conclusion:  Without a massive effort by the Dems to re-brand the "public option" something entirely different (e.g., call it "PrivaCare" or something)  and then sell it like gangbusters to the public--Americans seeking health insurance reform will instead get a consumer-oriented "patient's bill of right," a scout's honor promise from insurance companies, and a preview of how the next policy debate will go down. 

Tomorrow's political forecast: More shouts of "Communist!" from the right, more Obama supporters throwing their hands up in frustration, more watered-down bills filled with polite requests for good behavior from America's robber barons. 

America elects a Democratic President, House and Senate, but a right-wing mob dictates the policy agenda.

Good times.

UPDATE: 

I am not one to update posts, but...since putting up this piece on the "public option," progressive groups and the White House have mobilized a massive effort to push a healthcare reform bill forward--including overtures from all corners that the "public option" is "not dead."  As a result, I've put a "?" at the end of the post title.  So, there you go. 

I cannot say that I am 100% optimistic, yet.  But the confidence that a "public option" is still possible from Howard Dean does seem to be relevant here.  If anyone is in the loop on how a health insurance reform bill will unfold, it would be Dean.

As for speculating inside the head of President Obama:  I will not do that.  If he wants a "public option," then at some point in the next week or so, he will need to say so.  Something like, "I will veto any bill that does not include a public option," is what needs to come from him.   Sebelius saying that a "public option" is very important is not enough.

So I plan to listen carefully over the next few days for the words from the White House.

August 06, 2009

Fists Pounding on Glass, Right-Wing Violence Stops Tampa Town Hall

With fists pounding on exterior windows like a street mob out of a 1930s newsreel, a  crowd of right-wing agitators against health insurance reform descended on a town hall meeting in Tampa, Florida, "banging on windows" until police and organizers were forced to end the event. The result?  A violent mob silenced the voices of each and every American desperate to find a way out of the endless cycle of fear, shame and family bankruptcy brought on by an inhumane, profit-driven health insurance market.  Moreover, by using violence to shut down civic discussion between neighbors, this right-wing horde trampled underfoot one of the most sacred and historic symbols of American democracy.

Town halls in America are much more than information meetings.  They are emblematic of a unique aspect of face-to-face American democracy.  A tradition that reaches back to the founding generation of the Republic, Thomas Jefferson himself imagined the nucleus of American democracy not in the vaunted halls of government palaces, but in farm sheds and village meeting rooms.  In these regular meetings in town halls, neighbors would gather to learn what needed to know in order to solve the core problems of the day.   It is a tradition that has served this country well for well over two-hundred years.

Today in Tampa, that bright American town hall tradition came crashing down at the hands of another, ignominious trend in political life: the politics of intimidation, threat, and violence.  This is the brand of politics that wields the toxic force of fists and the sound of breaking glass to cut of healthy civic exchange.  This is the brand of politics that fills the public square first with talk of violence, then promises of violence, and then violence itself.

This is also the brand of politics that media coverage is quick to gloss over--quick to conceal behind some false notion that violence is on both sides.  Do not believe it. 

Americans trying earnestly to gather with their neighbors and engage in discussions about health insurance reform should beware of every account they read that depicts town  hall disruptions as generic, two-sided violence.  Beware, because these descriptions are false.

The health insurance reform debate in this country is not a fight between two violent sides.  It is a peaceful discussion that right-wing mobs are trying to stop and prevent.  Tonight they used violence in Tampa to successfully stop that peaceful discussion from happening. 

To find a way to fix our broken health insurance system,  the American people did what we have done for centuries: we organized town hall meetings throughout the states so neighbor could meet with neighbor to learn the facts and figure out together what could be done to improve our own lot, the lot of our children, our parents, and our neighbors. 

Those peaceful town hall meetings were not invaded by protesters from every political stripe.  They were invaded and attacked by one specific kind of group:  mobs of organized, right-wing agitators wielding a strategy of disruptive escalation: shouting, then fist waving, then pounding on glass.

Meanwhile, these mobs are not only encouraged, but are egged on by industry, elected officials, and broadcast media personalities.

This is not two-sided violence.  This is a one-sided attack on Americans trying to engage in the most basic act of our democracy: civic conversation with an eye towards problem solving.

When American citizens cannot come together to discuss a problem for fear of being attacked by a violent mob, the foundation on which our civic tradition rests has been cracked.  And if that crack is not repaired, the foundation will break.

Members of Congress and Senators who wrap themselves in this mob in the name of scoring political points for an upcoming election risk trampling not only on millions of Americans suffering in the current health insurance system, but also on the American system of government itself. 

In America, violent intimidation is not the brand of politics we embrace.  It is the politics we brand immoral.   

Tampa is a warning.  If the use of violent street mob tactics persists--if more and more right-wing mobs pound on windows and create a threatening environment to shut down town hall discussions, a line will have been crossed that may have dire consequences for this country. 

How disgraceful it would be if a few right-wing mobs--egged on by a few corrupt politicians and a handful of egotistical broadcast media figures--pushed this country across that line separating Democracy from political violence in the name of derailing a reform effort intended to help tens of millions of American families.

Disgraceful indeed.

August 04, 2009

What the Taitz Tantrum says about Political Media

By now we have all watched the "meltdown" video of self-styled "birther" conspiracy spokesperson, Orly Taitz.  The clip of David Shuster and Tamron Hall trying to get Taitz to answer questions, while Taitz rambles and calls them "Brownshirts for Obama" (among other things), has all the OMG-did-that-really-happen that sets the comedy writers into action on late-night TV.  By Sunday morning, when the talking  heads finally mull over it's significance,  everyone in America will have already seen the video at least once, as it is destined to be the big clip of the week.

This article is a re-posting of my Media-ite column. Check out the original at http://mediaite.com--a great new site!

Beyond the obvious, knee-slapping twitter punch lines that come out of Taitz' tantrum ("Orly Taitz sez the special pardon is a forgery. Kim Jong-Il really President of Kenya. LMAO"), my question is: what does this particular video gem say about the nature of political media?

Interestingly, these kinds of embarrassing videos are almost always of right-wing political figures caught in the act of embarrassing themselves. Why? Does left-wing politics lack a lunatic fringe or top political figures who lose self control in front of a a live camera? Hardly.

The political left in America, however, has a tendency to look for these kinds of moments where the political right does not. 

For the left, a political threat is no longer dangerous it can be shown hitting the level of exaggerated vaudeville.  If they can show "meltdown" on video, the left feels it has disarmed a political attack from the right. 

The right has a different approach altogether, which leads them to accumulate fewer of these Taitz Tantrum-type outtakes.  Rather than go for the take-down, embarrassing video, the right weaves all political attacks from the left into an ongoing media branding campaign intended to undermine the meaning of the word "liberal." 

The end result?  Left-wing political media yields the occasional zinger on video, while right-wing political media unfurls an endless narrative critique.

Because of this difference, left-wing clips like the Taitz tantrum have a far greater potential to slip out of their political corner and become mainstream cultural artifacts.  Thanks to such new media comedy outlets as "Funny or Die," which already released a comedy version of the Taitz video ("Play Orly Taitz Off, Keyboard Cat"), the sound of Taitz accusing David Shuster and Tamron Hall of being "fassists" will echo across the iPhone-sphere and reach the lofty heights of YouTube high rankdom. Rarely does the same fate befall a clip of Glenn Beck ridiculing liberal tax policy or Bill O'Reilly comparing left-wing blogs to Nazis.  Left-wing political media is more organic to the internet and wanders further,  whereas right-wing media tends to stay more within its original broadcast medium and its original audience. 

So the right-wing media moments become popular because they win the nightly numbers.  Left-wing media moments hit the headlines after swarm to the surface on Digg or Twitter.

Once the unhinged shouting has stopped, in other words, the Taitz "meltdown" is not just bizarre.  It is also a  window onto the difference between how the left and right make use of the media.

And a darned entertaining one at that.

Anodyne Town Halls are the Problem, Not Teabaggers

As Democrats fan out across the country to hold town hall meetings on health care, a small group of loud and angry"teabag" protesters have been shouting over speakers, disrupting proceedings, and grabbing the headlines.   In response, some Democratic strategists have called for the town hall organizers to open meetings with emotional testimonies from people as a strategy for heading off the teabag protesters.

It is sound advice, but switching gears will not work for Democrats in the town halls for a simple reason:  they have already decided that the way to win the health care debate and pass a reform bill is to make sure the debate stays as far from emotional arguments as possible.

Despite the Democratic communications strategy, the media victory of the teabag protesters is the clearest sign so far that the health care reform will not be won by quietly unrolling logical arguments about reducing costs by nudging all consumers to a more regulated market.  Victory in the health care debate will go to the side that leverages core American symbols to spark the passions of the people.

The question remains as to whether the Democrats leading these August recess health care town halls would even be capable of suddenly switching gears to a more emotional narrative?  The problem is that these same Democratic Party leaders are the people who long-ago decided that passing a health care bill depends 101% on making anodyne arguments that persuade people who (1) already have health care, (2) are too self-interested to want reform to help others, and (3) only care about reducing their monthly expenses.  That means the organizers of the town halls  see these meetings more like open enrollment information sessions than historic battles in the push for reform. 

In other words, it is the Senate, Congressional, and White House Democratic Party communication teams that have created the ideal, quiet conditions for a half-dozen fever-pitched teabaggers to shout "tyranny!" and disrupt the hushed sessions.

If, by contrast, the Democrats leading these sessions had gone into them with more passion, the political stage available to the teabag protesters would have been radically diminished, if not eliminated altogether.  Beyond just inviting people to kick off the town halls with a story of how their families have suffered as a result of the health insurance industry, Democrats could have followed communications strategy where the overall goal was to control the emotional symbolism of the town halls--wherein everyone who attended would be so shouting mad and teary-eyed in favor of reform that there would be no silent vacuum that could have been filled by protesters.   

Because the Democrats treated the town halls as information sessions rather than symbolic stages, they left the emotional terrain wide open for a few voices to exploit, which is exactly what the teabaggers have done.

Rather than arguing for better financial practice or sound health care policy, the teabag protesters are treating the town halls themselves as opportunities to control the national debate on the meaning of American life.  Thus, while a vast majority of Americans, for example, want a new public option to replace their current health insurance, those same Americans do not see or hear that story being passionately argued in the media.

It is astounding that, even with control of the Congress and the Executive branch, Democrats still do not understand the symbolism implicit in these health care town halls, whereas a ragtag bunch of teabag protesters does get it.

So what should the Democrats do?

For starters, they need to splash some cold water on their faces and wake up to the fact that people do not go to town halls to get information.  When was the last time you or anyone else you know decided to buy health insurance based on a live one-hour presentation given by an elected official?  Numbers and details about health care coverage are better presented in pamphlets, on web sites, and via phone in systems that allow people to pursue answers to the specific questions they have. 

Second, Democrats need to see the town halls as symbolic arenas to be dominated, not mere meeting locations to attend.  To dominate a symbolic arena, Democrats need to literally fill the proceeding with the most compelling reasons for reform that exist: ending injustice, averting personal bankruptcy, eliminating the paralyzing fear of illness, preventing systemic financial collapse, ending the personal and economic humiliation of living with chronic illness in America.  Never before in the history of political debate have there been more passionate arguments to be made and more people willing to step up and make them than for the health care debate.

Third, Democrats need to bridge the gap between the town hall meetings and the media. They cannot stage effective town halls and then sit back and hope that the media finds it interesting enough in the dog days of August to cover them instead of covering power outages or lost kittens. Every elected Democrat in Washington, DC, has an office full of talented staffers with experience mobilizing the media to cover their bosses.  These staffers need to be enlisted to put the town halls on the front pages and in the lead position of every broadcast from now until September. 

Fourth, Democrats need to enlist and energize the grassroots of their party.  After the election, the Obama campaign left one of the greatest legacies in political history:  hundreds of thousands of Americans centrally organized via the internet and willing to turn out to push for real change.  These people need to be mobilized with the same passionate arguments that got them to turn out to walk door-to-door in cold weather to elect a President. They will not respond with arguments about lowering the general costs of coverage and forcing insurance companies to live up to their responsibilities.  By contrast, this grassroots will respond to arguments about a historic moment to end health insurance injustice, to fight health care inequality, and to put the United States on the road to a healthier, stronger future after decades of wandering in the wilderness.

Fifth, a real public option (not some phony baloney "co-op") must be put front and center of the debate by leading Democrats including the President.  Without the public option at the center of the debate, the very people who would be the most passionate voices in the health care discussion are hamstrung.  They cannot argue passionately for what they believe if the moral core of the debate has been stripped away.  This  means letting people speak passionately about "single-payer" systems or "medicare plus" or whatever language they feel best describes a real public option. 

Lastly, the President needs to cut his vacation down to size so he can climb back on the bully pulpit as only he can.  Nothing would speak louder to the urgency and passion of this debate than President Obama telling the country that he is willing to spend less time frolicking on Martha's Vineyard with his family because he believes so strongly in the  need for health care reform.  This would also mean no more "this isn't about me...I have good health care coverage" comments from the President.  He needs to tell everyone--each and every day--that this is the fight of his life.  That he cannot sleep at night because of the urgent need for health care reform. And he cannot stop saying that until every single media outlet in the world is either echoing his concern or fighting him tooth and n

If the Democrats put aside their anodyne approach and restart the health care debate with a level of passion worthy of the issue, neither the teabaggers nor any other protest group will have much peace and quiet to disrupt. 

Health care is a passionate topic.  If the Democrats lead the public in an intense debate that matches the emotions of the subject matter, by September they should have the political backing to pass the real reform that 70% of the public wants anyhow.