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John W. Dean

Health Care Reform: A Time for Real Action


Friday, August 21, 2009

President Barack Obama has called on his army of volunteers, those who were responsible for sending him to the White House, to go to work on health care reform. It is not a moment too soon.

Republicans have succeeded beyond their wildest dream in derailing President Obama's mandated election issue of 2008. I know this because I have talked with many of them. They are ecstatic, and they understand well that if they beat Obama on his signature issue, they have seriously damaged him politically and hurt his presidency. Today, Americans clearly disapprove – according to Gallup, by some six points – of Obama's handling of the issue that he used to win his near-landslide election victory.

Of course, the true losers will be the American people, if Republicans succeed in defeating health care reform using tactics more suited for war against a true enemy of the nation, than for opposition to a program that seeks to make Americans more secure and to better their lives.

The Republicans' Effective Use of Asymmetrical Tactics

Booing, shouting, and incivility have worked. Outrageous comparisons of Obama to Hitler; claims that "death panels" would be part of "Obamacare"; assertions that care will be rationed; descriptions of inchoate proposals as socialism; and total distortions of the facts have – together -- so confused many Americans (particularly the Fox News audience) so thoroughly, that they simply do not have a clue what actually is, or is not, being proposed. Republicans have made it ugly, if not impossible, for countless Democratic members of Congress visiting with their constituents at town hall meetings to try to rationally discuss health care reform.

This situation was sadly predictable. Just as John Kerry let the outrageous Swift-boaters totally distort his record, so too the Obama White House and the Democrats have given these more recent tactics all the running room they needed to get going. President Obama decided to allow the processes of democracy to work, and Republicans are masters at gaming the system.

Unlike the Republicans, who seek to silence the opposition, President Obama encouraged all voices and interests to be heard. Also unlike the Republicans, who embrace an imperial presidency that tells Congress what to do and supporters how to think, President Obama requested that Congress develop a new law, on its own, to fix the ailing American health care system.

Apparently concerned by the example of President Clinton, who in 1993 had mistakenly tried to tell Congress what to do regarding health care and had lost the battle entirely, President Obama may conversely lose for failing to give Congress the guidance it needed. He allowed the opponents of reform to frame the debate, and to set its tone.

Apparently, contemporary Republicans must shout at one another at home, for they plainly believe this incivility is appropriate public conduct. Because reform is contrary to the interests of corporations who are getting rich under the present system, they have enlisted those who are willing to lie, cheat, and deceive to block reform, and in the process, they have taken honesty out of the debate.

The current public rancor is scattered throughout the country and actually rather insignificant. Yet Republicans have counted on its being exaggerated by talk radio, cable news channels, and the Internet. Conflict attracts attention, and these enterprises all want attention, so they are employing their media megaphones accordingly.

Many who support reform are now calling for a massive "Heath Care Reform March on Washington" in September. It is a terrible idea, which if put into practice would be a waste of time, energy and money that would not help pass healthcare reform. Rather than marching on Washington, it is time for truly appropriate action, which President Obama has now called for, in a virtual meeting yesterday with his grassroots organizers via the Internet.

Marches on Washington Change Nothing

Marches on Washington do not result in new laws or fundamental changes in policy. Such high-profile demonstrations have a long, and tired, history throughout the last century. If you examine a few of the many celebrated demonstrations, it is clear that they accomplish little – other than symbolism.

In the spring of 1913, some 5,000 women joined the Suffrage March to Washington to seek voting rights equal to those of men. Not until after defeats in 1915 and 1918, and not until President Wilson called a special session of Congress to pass a Constitutional amendment in 1919, was such a law actually sent to the states for ratification, which was accomplished in 1920. The Washington march produced nothing.

In 1932, over 10,000 World War I veterans marched to Washington to demand that Congress change the law so that they might receive their agreed-upon war bonuses before the 1945 due date. They needed the money because of the hard times, with the nation in the midst of the Great Depression. Yet the Senate voted against them and encouraged President Hoover to send them away, using as much force as necessary.

In the fall of 1963, some 250,000 people joined the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his "I Have A Dream" speech. Yet landmark civil rights legislation would not be passed by Congress until July 1964. The massive gathering had nowhere near the impact that the Civil Rights Movement did, by working on voters and members of Congress in their districts.

Throughout the Vietnam War, there were over a dozen major marches on Washington, ranging in size from 100,000 to nearly a million people, to protest the continuation of the war. The marches on Washington did not change the policies of either the Johnson or Nixon Administrations.

In the summer of 1978, over 100,000 women marched on Washington for the Equal Rights Amendment. It has never been adopted.

In fact, there have been so many marches on Washington that even their symbolism has been diluted. Such gatherings once created networks for people who, after meeting in Washington, continued to work -- usually with more success -- in their respective states. But the Internet means that it is no longer necessary to travel to Washington to join a community of like-thinking people who are interested in taking action.

It Is Now or Never For the First Internet President

Conventional wisdom correctly credits Obama's 2008 election victory to his innovative use of the Internet. It was more than an awesome fundraising tool; it was also a grassroots organization with an unparalleled reach. When Obama moved into the White House, his 13-million-email Rolodex became Organizing for America (OFA).

On Thursday, August 20, 2009, President Obama called on his grassroots supporters to assist him in doing what they elected him to do, and accomplish real health care reform. As Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman said, when introducing the President to his assembled supporters, "This is our moment."

Since June 6, 2009, when initial OFA assistance was requested by the Obama White House to organize grassroots support for health care, OFA reports that over 1.5 million of its members have volunteered to take action. They have organized 11,906 local events; collected 231,572 personal stories; and made 64,912 local Congressional office visits in a single week, and they have consistently outnumbered protesters at town hall meetings.

This data would be impressive if Obama was winning the fight for reform. In fact, it is anything but clear that he is going to prevail. As President Obama reminded his supporters at the outset of his pep talk and tutorial, he had once been down by 30 points in Iowa primary caucuses before his supporters went to work, and he had been down in the polls in the general election before they went to work. Reminding his supporters that he had long ago told them that getting elected was only the first task, he urged them that it was now time to employ their efforts to accomplish the goals for which they had elected him. "Let's go get 'em," he urged, before engaging in a question-and-answer tutorial on how to deal with the misinformation and phony arguments being spread by Republicans.

In fact, Obama has a majority of Americans supporting him. He has now given his active army of supporters the information tools they need to win the debate. Just as the election was a true test of the impact of the Internet on presidential election politics, President Obama's organized followers are now being tested to see if, in fact, they can change the ways of government. They will not do it by taking the old roads like marching to Washington, but we must all hope they can use the tools of the Internet and the power of their virtual community to spread the truth, for as the President explained, the truth wins the case for health care reform. It is, in fact, now or never for the first Internet President.

John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.

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