Gene Lyons wonders how it is that the people running the health care battle seemed to have learned nothing from the experience of 1994: 

[T]he Obama White House got caught napping as the paranoid train left the station once again. Presidential aides told reporters that the barrage of falsehoods and insane comparisons to Nazi Germany "had caught them off guard and forced them to begin an August counteroffensive."

So where were these geniuses back when Clinton was being called a drug smuggler and mass murderer? When militiamen spotted U.N. "black helicopters" over Western skies? When thousands hoarded canned food and bottled water in advance of the imaginary Y2K catastrophe?

Good question.  But being "caught off guard" seems to have been the order of the day.  Here’s Richard Kirsch, head of HCAN, on August 13:

"We are absolutely surprised at the way that the right focused so much on this as soon as August began," said Richard Kirsch, campaign manager for HCAN.

How is that possible?  How is the guy entrusted with $45 million for the sole purpose of spreading the President’s message on health care caught so totally unprepared, when members of Congress were warning from the floor of the House that the Republicans were going to sweep down on them like locusts in the August recess?   And why does he still have a job?

While I can’t speak to the general level of unpreparedness, in terms of messaging HCAN had their hands tied.  Because the #1 goal of the guy calling the shots (Rahm Emanuel) was to keep all the stakeholders (AHIP, PhRMA, AMA etc.) at the table and their checkbooks out of Republican coffers, the unbreakable compact of the Baucus Caucus was: you don’t advertise against us, we don’t advertise against you.  So where there should have been a big bogeyman in the form of guys like Stephen Helmsley, the CEO of UnitedHealthcare who owns $744,232,068 in unexercised stock options, you got "bending the cost curve."

Ever see HCAN — or anyone in the White House — kick the insurance industry in the teeth like Brave New Films did in Sick for Profit?  Of course you didn’t:

HCAN was funded to the tune of $40 million by Atlantic Philanthropies, George Soros and members of the steering committee, who each committed half a million dollars to the effort:

ACORN, AFL-CIO, AFSCME, AFT, Americans United for Change, Campaign for America’s Future, Center for American Progress Action Fund, Campaign for Community Change, Children’s Defense Fund Action Council, Communications Workers of America,, NAACP, National Council of La Raza, National Education Association, National Women’s Law Center, SEIU, UFCW, USAction, Women’s Voices, Women’s Vote and Working America. 

Soros just kicked in another $5 million. HCAN was told that they should focus on attacking Republicans, because the thing that would make Democrats feel more "comfortable" voting for a public plan would be advertisements against Republicans.  Despite the fact that it is the ConservaDems who are now "blocking" the President’s health care agenda, this HCAN’s latest ad:

Everyone was left either tilting at windmills (as if the Republicans in Congress had any power that wasn’t given to them — the Democrats could easily pass health care on their own) or trying to whip up enthusiasm for "bending the cost curve."

Obama had to stay vague in his message because most of the things he promised during the campaign were dealt away to keep money out of Republican coffers.  If he insisted on a public plan and it didn’t make its way into the final bill, it would be touted as a defeat.  So expressing "support" while saying that Congress was writing its own bill (as if) left him in a position to sell the deals made with the stakeholders as "the best we could do" with that "don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good" finger wagging at the end of the process.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and into that messaging void stepped Betsy McCaughey and her "death panels." 


For a generation now, the well-organized and lavishly funded right-wing noise machine has dominated American political debate with poisonous nonsense like McCaughey’s, with little effective pushback.

To the extent Democrats resist, it’s mainly on Web sites like the invaluable Media Matters for America. What’s needed, however, is a strong counter-narrative informing voters that they’re being had: conned, tricked and manipulated by, yes, New York, Washington and Hollywood "media elites" who lie for money. Vulgar? You bet. It’s called "populism," and it once dominated the very states where talk-radio bombast now holds sway.

"Fact-checking" right wing lies is important, but it’s reactive and intellectual.  The message of Betsy McCaughey was emotional and tapped into people’s deep fears.  She succeeded because the political conditions that controlled the negotiations of the Baucus Caucus hamstrung the development of that "strong counter-narrative" to drive the campaign in the first place.  By the time the teabaggers showed up in August, the battleground had been ceded and there was considerable uneasiness in the public mind created by the mixed messaging around the entire campaign. 

As Paul Krugman writes today in an article entitled "Obama’s Trust Problem":

On the issue of health care itself, the inspiring figure progressives thought they had elected comes across, far too often, as a dry technocrat who talks of “bending the curve” but has only recently begun to make the moral case for reform. Mr. Obama’s explanations of his plan have gotten clearer, but he still seems unable to settle on a simple, pithy formula; his speeches and op-eds still read as if they were written by a committee.

The goals of the Baucus Caucus — which represent the true objectives of the White House — were so at odds with the public face of the health care debate that the dissonance, the mixed messaging, created tremendous public anxiety.  There were so many vague expressions of "support" for this or that, without any firm commitment to anything, and the idea that the Republicans were responsible for what was happening just never made any intuitive sense. 

You can’t implement the biggest economic change program since the New Deal without public trust.  The White House tried to sell trust in a man — Obama — at a time when that trust was breaking down in the wake of the banking debacle, which as Krugman says created tremendous populist discontent across the board.  Remember that this was where the teabaggers got their start, where their messaging took root, and it was the result of the same Rahm Emanuel calculus:  buy off big business with taxpayer dollars and keep them from funding the Republicans.

It’s an unbelievably cynical message that underscores everything coming out of the White House and it’s at complete odds with what Obama stood for in the election.  It fundamentally violates what people think they voted for.  And those internal contradictions teed up Betsy McCaughey perfectly.

One more time, with feeling: Thanks, Rahm.