We’ll Win Health Care in 2009 with a Strong, Coordinated, Progressive Movement
By Bernie Horn
June 1, 2009 - 3:26pm ET
Once upon a time, there was a Democratic president who promised to finally deliver health coverage for all Americans. It was 1993-94. Not only did health care reform fail to pass, that failure helped destroy the party’s majority in Congress and give rise to the extreme right-wing forces that remained more-or-less in power for 14 years. What’s different about the health care effort today?
That's one of the subjects we're talking about at the America's Future Now conference in Washington, DC, today through Wednesday. (There's still time for you to join us.)
More than a year ago, Ezra Klein wrote an excellent article in The American Prospect that dissected the Clinton Administration’s effort to enact health care for all. Klein notes that Clinton moved too slowly, squandering the momentum from his election campaign. And the legislation produced by policy experts was too fragile for the rough-and-tumble congressional lawmaking process.
But the most important difference between 1994 and 2009 is that during the Clinton effort there was almost no grassroots campaign to sell the plan to Americans. As Klein wrote:
And the Democratic strategy to aggressively sell the plan? There was none. Clinton asked the Democratic National Committee to create a grassroots campaign in favor of health care reform in the summer of 1993. But their effort fell apart amidst media scrutiny of their proposed “educational foundation” and after that stumble, never found the funding to seriously continue. In July of 1994, the administration sought to recapture momentum with a bus trek across America, the so-called "Reform Riders." At every stop, they were met by better-organized, better-funded conservative protesters. Enormous amounts of energy and time had gone into the construction of an ingenious health care plan. It’s as if no one realized, though, that they’d still have to sell it.
Their allies, however, should have known better. Where was Labor, the progressive movement, AARP? Essentially, nowhere. “Labor was split because it wasn’t single-payer, and they were mad because of NAFTA,” says one insider deeply involved in the process. “They held back on any kind of dedicated resources or substantial commitment to defending health care in the fall of ‘93. They came in later, but we were already taking on a lot of water. And the progressive movement, because it wasn't single-payer, ended up not really embracing the bill, and that lack of support really contributed to a one-sided, White House versus the world, dynamic.” AARP was little better—they didn't even endorse the possible bills until late in 1994.
This year, progressive organizations are ready to fight. They have the money, boots on the ground, and the passion to win.
First, the money: Progressive groups are poised to spend more than $82 million this year to enact legislation guaranteeing quality, affordable health care for all. This includes campaign funding that has been committed by Health Care for America Now; the two main labor federations, AFL-CIO and Change To Win; and mobilization groups such as MoveOn.org and Democracy for America. For progressives, that’s an unprecedented financial effort.
Second, the organizing: The Health Care for America Now (HCAN) coalition started last year with a bit more than 100 organizations. Today, it includes 1,000 groups that collectively represent over 30 million members. HCAN’s national campaign manager, Richard Kirsch, emphasizes that “the heart of this campaign is not inside the Beltway.” HCAN now has more than 140 paid organizers in 40 states working exclusively to build support for federal health care reform while other organizations, such as SEIU and CWA, have hundreds more organizers in the field.
Campaign for America’s Future co-director Robert Borosage points out that:
While the conservative coalition has collapsed, progressives have continued to build and expand, we are both more unified and better mobilized than ever.
This is largely a reaction to the successful tactics of the right wing over the past three decades, and especially during the Bush Administration. Eli Pariser, president of MoveOn.org, explains:
The Bush years have taught progressives how to do political campaigns in a different way. It’s not enough to state your argument and hope for the best. You have to get out into the country and build constituencies in key districts and have the apparatus and enforce discipline.
Finally, the passion: Enough is enough! We will not allow the health care crisis to continue. We will not stand by as thousands or even millions of Americans inevitably die because they can’t afford health insurance. We will not calmly watch our friends and neighbors, and sometimes our families, be bankrupted by health care costs. We will not say it’s okay for private health insurance companies to enrich themselves at the expense of our wellbeing and our lives. We lost in 1994, but will not lose again.
The writer is a Senior Fellow at Campaign for America’s Future and author of the book, “Framing the Future: How Progressive Values Can Win Elections and Influence People”.
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Views expressed on this page are those of the authors and not necessarily those of Campaign for America's Future or Institute for America's Future