Why Democrats need to speak with one voice on Obamacare
You can say all you want about Republican obstructionism, or the fact that getting Democrats to agree is like herding cats. The point is, when one side speaks in unison, the point coming from that side is solidified. When comments from the other side are scattershot, they get lost.
Which side has been speaking with one voice, even if those voices are unified in telling lies? Which voices get shut out of the conversation, even as they make a variety of excellent points?
It’s time to adopt the Republican playbook when it comes to talking about issues, especially when it comes to talking to the media. Right now, with a GOP triumvirate in Washington, Democrats don’t have the luxury of nitpicking each other.
Back in 2010, a Democratic Congress finally passed the Affordable Care Act after months of wrangling. There were hearings in the House and Senate in 2009, starting in May. Minute points about the proposed provisions of the sweeping law were dissected, thrown out, and redeveloped. In the end, despite Democratic concessions, the ACA received zero votes from GOP representatives and senators anyway.
But what did congressional Republicans say about the ACA—every day, every Republican, on Fox News or on any other cable or network news show?
- It was “rammed through” Congress.
- The legislation is 2,000 pages long.
Neither of those points is true.
Hearings continued in both houses of Congress for months. You can Google “ACA hearings” and the legislation itself. The final version is 906 pages. Admittedly that’s not short, but that’s a far cry from 2,000 pages. And the final law, with its 906-page count, is printed on pages with lots of white space.
Yet if you asked the average American, chances are they would remember the fact that it was “rammed through” (apparently that’s GOP shorthand for using the reconciliation process, which they’re planning on using to repeal it) and that it was 2,000 pages long. Oh, and that no one read it before it was passed.
The average American remembers those lies because the same talking points were used by every Republican. When is the last time you remember the same talking points used by every Democrat?
The fact that Democrats disagree is no surprise. If you look at the arguments among Democrats, whether on primary battles or what Democrats should focus on now, you always find nitpicking about specifics and percentages. There are plenty of varied and great ideas offered on helping the middle class, winning elections, building infrastructure, fighting the effects of climate change, etc., but there also are always complaints about details.
It reminds me of arguments Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas made in his 2006 book Crashing the Gate. In chapter two, he describes a conference in Monterey, California, for progressive activists about moving forward after the 2004 election. At a session on coalition-building, instead of learning how to work together, many attendees ended up whining, “What about my issue?” Instead of working as one group of 40, they split into five groups.
The bane of the progressive movement had struck—the demand by single-issue groups to focus on their issue to the exclusion of anything else. Even for one hour, in a session about working with other groups, they were unable to pay attention to any issue but their own.
Yes, Republicans disagree, too. That’s why John Boehner gave up his job as House speaker—trying to ride herd over such a disagreeable bunch just wasn’t worth it anymore. Yet when it comes time to vote, you find very few Republicans not toeing the line. And they always say the same thing during media appearances.
During the George W. Bush administration, GOP talking points would be developed and distributed through both the White House and Fox News. It was hard to tell where one stopped and the other began.
After the November 2016 election, there was no shortage of advice from pundits and others on what steps Democrats need to take to avoid sinking into political oblivion. Advice ranged from “How Democrats can build a real opposition to Donald Trump” (Washington Post) to “When Democrats Can Work With Trump, They Should” (Bloomberg).
From the Post piece referenced above:
In the House and Senate, Democrats need leaders who can maintain unity within their caucus and know how to use the institutional levers available to the minority to limit the damage Republicans can do and force them into uncomfortable situations and the occasional outright defeat.
And what else do they need to build that opposition? They need organizations that will sue the Trump administration and submit thousands of FOIA requests to find out what it’s actually up to, since the Republican Congress certainly won’t be carrying out any oversight. They need an intense focus on state legislative races — backed up by ample funds from the liberal billionaires who are ordinarily more interested in what happens in Washington — to reverse the gains Republicans have made at the state level in the last eight years.
Note the key phrase “unity within their caucus.” Democratic opposition won’t mean a thing if it’s not delivered with a unified voice.
(We’ll ignore the advice from the Bloomberg columnist, who advises Dems to work with Trump and the Republicans on issues such as an infrastructure bill. The columnist claims that refusing to work with Republicans means Democrats will have no “no chance to influence policy.” As if Trump and Republicans would ask for or accept that input anyway.)
There are many good ideas and strategies for fighting Trump and congressional—and state—Republicans. Rather than complain that some don’t pass a purity test, let’s see implementation of unified ideas and talking points.
The New York Times had an opinion piece on why Democrats should adopt the strategies of the Tea Party. Because as racist, threatening, and full of lies as they were, the tactics worked.
The Tea Party’s ideas were wrong, and their often racist rhetoric and physical threats were unacceptable. But they understood how to wield political power and made two critical strategic decisions. First, they organized locally, focusing on their own members of Congress. Second, they played defense, sticking together to aggressively resist anything with President Obama’s support. With this playbook, they rattled our elected officials, targeting Democrats and Republicans alike.
Politics is the art of the possible, and the Tea Party changed what was possible. They waged a relentless campaign to force Republicans away from compromise and tank Democratic legislative priorities like immigration reform and campaign finance transparency. Their members ensured that legislation that did pass, like the Affordable Care Act, was unpopular from the start. They hijacked the national narrative and created the impression of broad discontent with President Obama.
Let’s go back to the example of the ACA. Republicans are bent on repealing it and already have introduced legislation in the Senate to do so. House Republicans already have taken some 60 votes to repeal. Of course, even after nearly seven years, nothing serious has been suggested as a replacement. “Repeal and delay” is the new tactic, even though such an approach would make the individual insurance market crash and burn, and the benefits of the legislation would be gone.
So far, Democrats have been meeting to plan strategies. Democratic representatives across the country are scheduled to hold meetings with constituents to describe the downfalls and idiocy of the Republican repeal-and-delay approach. President Obama met with Democratic leaders to decide on the best tack for what to do about repeal, and offered the advice, “Make Republicans own it.”
What’s not needed right now is Democratic infighting about what’s wrong with the ACA; how it should have been single-payer all along; how the bill should have done X or Y differently; whether to cooperate with the GOP or not. One position. From everyone. Calling it “#MakeAmericaSickAgain” isn’t too bad a start.
No, Democrats have one job, and every Democrat must say the same thing: The public will be the losers if the ACA is repealed, and it will be the Republicans’ fault. Donald Trump can tweet all he wants that it will be the Democrats’ fault, but no one’s buying his words.
Look, we’re not going to agree on every approach made by Democrats in Congress. But as a party in the minority, we can’t afford petty disagreements.
Originally posted on Daily Kos on Jan. 8, 2017.