Democrats Flip Focus of Healthcare Debate, But It's Too Little, Too Late

The town hall confrontations show Obamacare for what it is—unpopular.

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By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

President Barack Obama got some much needed good news this week when the U.S. Department of Labor reported unemployment was down for the first time in more than a year.

The spike in joblessness had been in stark contrast in the vaunted rhetoric surrounding the stimulus package, which the White House promised would end the recession and put America back to work. If July 2009 unemployment figures are the beginning of a trend, then the stimulus may finally be working—albeit after a recession that lasted almost three times as long as the postwar average before the recovery started.

The president's popularity, which has plummeted from the unsustainable levels it reached as he came into office, remains near 50 percent—but his agenda is far less popular. Which is probably why, as part of the healthcare reboot triggered by the August congressional recess, the White House began taking about government-backed healthcare reform and the public option as an improvement over the service many Americans receive from their private insurance companies, which are about as popular as the IRS. By talking about something people don't like—having to deal with private insurance bureaucracies—rather than something they do like—like the healthcare their receive from their doctor and at their local hospital—the president's advisers are hoping to change the tone and focus of the debate.

It's a subtle shift, noticeable in the tone of the opening paragraph of an E-mail sent on "White House" letterhead by presidential adviser David Axelrod Sunday that began, "Anyone that's watched the news in the past few days knows that health insurance reform is a hot topic—and that rumors and scare tactics have only increased as more people engage with the issue. Given a lot of the outrageous claims floating around, it's time to make sure everyone knows the facts about the security and stability you get with health insurance reform."

Note that Axelrod talks about "health insurance reform" rather than "healthcare reform." It's part of the White House's new strategy to establish in the public's mind that anyone who opposes Obama's healthcare initiative is really defending the insurance companies.

And if that had been the game plan from the start, it might have worked, but the tenor of the town hall meetings, which Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland labeled "un-American" in a jointly signed op-ed for Monday's USA Today, suggests the redirection is too little, too late.

"It is now evident that an ugly campaign is underway not merely to misrepresent the health insurance reform legislation, but to disrupt public meetings and prevent members of Congress and constituents from conducting a civil dialogue," the two Democrats wrote. "These disruptions are occurring because opponents are afraid not just of differing views—but of the facts themselves. Drowning out opposing views is simply un-American."

Actually, it would appear that the ones who are "afraid" of differing views are not the opponents of reform but its supporters, including the president. The supporters of reform, and note that Pelosi and Hoyer likewise engaged in the subtle shift in language, understand too well that, in this debate, knowledge is power.

The people have the power, and people are coming to these town hall meetings armed with knowledge about what the bill that has been reported out of three House committees says, what the rules and bureaucracies it would create do, and the impact that it would have on their own healthcare. And they are coming to these meetings knowing what government-mandated health insurance has done to healthcare in Massachusetts and how rationing and wait times affect access to essential services in places like Canada. Meanwhile, there are too many members of Congress coming to these meetings who have not even promised to read the bill before voting on it.

Pelosi and Hoyer, and those who echo their sentiments, are wrong in the way they characterize the dissent being expressed at these meeting. It is, in fact, all too American. What is "un-American" is the dishonest and disingenuous way Pelosi, Hoyer, and their allies are trying to shut off the debate.

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