Thursday, September 3, 2009
Obamacare Pre-Mortem: What Do You Do When the Pollsters Say It Can't Be Done? Easy: Tell Them It CAN Be Done! Any More Questions?
The Herndon Alliance is back in the news, in a revealing Wall Street Journal article, "Wrong Turns: How Obama's Health-Care Push Went Astray". The article is an excellent piece of journalistic "pre-mortem"; i.e. Obamacare isn't dead yet, but reporters have already started explaining what killed it. (Even if something does pass, by now it's clear that it won't be anything like what Barack Obama, or liberal-left activists, had in mind. So the autopsy/obituary form is entirely apt.)
As noted by the WSJ on August 25, and here at SMS, a key behind-the-scenes player in the Obamacare effort has been the Herndon Alliance, a group of activists (and donors) who have helped the Democrats craft their healthcare advocacy message over the past few years. As noted by the Journal two weeks ago, the message might have been fine, except for one thing--the voters didn't like it. That's always a problem in small "d" democratic politics.
Now, thanks to the Journal, we have some more detail on Herndon and its workings. It would appear that some Herndonians are now anxious to make sure that they don't get blamed for the Obamacare fiasco. So as one reads this excerpt, one should be mindful of CYA on the part of the sources. But just because those sources are spinning things their way, to reporters, doesn't necessarily mean that they are lying. Here's the lede of the WSJ story:
A group called the Herndon Alliance -- a coalition of liberal health-care groups, unions and patient-advocacy groups created in late 2005 -- was only a few months into its work planning a health-insurance overhaul by the time it asked focus groups what they thought of the idea of a government-run plan to compete with private ones.
The public-option was an article of faith for many in the alliance, but the focus groups' reactions were sobering. Skepticism ran high. The chief worry: Giving access to inexpensive government insurance to America's 46 million uninsured would boost costs, or reduce care, for those who were already insured.
When pollsters told the advocacy groups the public option probably wouldn't fly, they were told to paper over the problem with a better "message," according to a participant in the project.
"We tried to do our best to come up with some fancy words to help talk about this," this participant said, but in the end, he said, marketers and pollsters involved in the Herndon Alliance may have told their advocacy group clients what they wanted to hear.
To this observer, the "paper over the problem" anecdote has the ring of truth to it. Liberal-left health care types have wanted "the public option" all along (what they really want, most of them, is single payer, but as Barack Obama himself has said in unguarded moments, public option is a good way station to single payer, so the public option was a good start), and so they brought in pollsters and spin doctors and wordsmiths to help them conjure up the magic words that would make it all possible. Presto! Abracadabra!
Pollsters and spin doctors and wordsmiths don't have any such magic wand, of course, although people in those professions have been known to exaggerate their skills at mesmerism, especially in pitch meetings to potential funders. But later, after the money has been spent, those same pollsters/spin doctors/wordsmiths might have concluded that words and artifice had failed them--indeed, that seems to have been the case.
And yet as the article says, the people calling the shots would not take "no" for answer. Rejecting the preliminary evidence that the public would not buy "the public option" the shot-callers chose to ignore that evidence. Try some new words, they said, but full speed ahead, with the liberal-left equivalent of moral clarity.
And the rest is history. The healthcare equivalent of Plan XVII. As the political scientists Lawrence Jacobs of the University of Minnesota and Robert Shapiro of Columbia University observed back in back 2000, in their brilliant book, Politicians Don’t Pander: Political Manipulation and the Loss of Democratic Responsiveness, politicians don't pander much. Or at least, they don't pander on the formulation of their policies. If they are Democrats, they are likely to be liberals; if they are Republicans, they are likely to be conservative. And vote and govern that way when it counts. Why? Among other reasons, the respective parties demand ideological orthodoxy.
Where the pandering comes in, Jacobs and Shapiro assert, is not in the making of policies, but in the selling of policies. That is, liberals have to put the face on liberalism, while conservatives have to put the best face on conservatism. Such face-putting-on may or may not work--lipstick on a pig sometimes works, but sometimes not.
And that's what seems to have happened on health care. The liberal-left was determined to get the public option, and when the pollsters told them that it might not be possible, they went ahead and pushed it anyway.
More behind stories to come, don't worry about that.
Posted by James P. Pinkerton at 7:01 PM