If Democrats leading the health care town halls had more passion, the political stage available to the teabag protesters would have been radically diminished.

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Jeffrey Feldman, Editor-in-Chief
Frameshop, 08/04/2009

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. 

© Jeffrey Feldman 2009, Frameshop

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