Philip Klein: The selling of Obamacare: How liberal activists helped win passage of Obamacare

Part three of a three-part series.

Liberal advocacy groups did not get the single payer or public option system they wanted, so why are they so pleased with themselves? They’re thinking long term.

Liberal political operatives had 15 years to figure out why they failed to pass a national health care legislation in 1993. This time, groups like Families USA and the powerful Service Employees International Union (SEIU) changed their tune.

Instead of antagonizing the business community with “Harry and Louise”-style commercials that frightened away Democrats from more conservative districts, liberals and labor adopted an alternative: “If you can’t beat them, co-opt them.”

The liberals and labor formed coalitions with industry groups, reminding them that some companies could get government subsidies to buy medical products and services, while other companies struggling with rising employee benefits could dump their healthcare costs onto the government.

The selling of Obamacare 

Tuesday: W. James Antle III examines the role of unions the role of labor unions

Wednesday: Elias Crim looks at the role of the Catholic Health Association and the American Medical Association

Thursday: Philip Klein assesses the contribution of liberal activist groups.

As early as January 2007 the group Families USA announced the formation of the Health Coverage Coalition for the Uninsured (HCCU) that included the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Hospital Association, American Medical Association, Pfizer Inc., Blue Cross/Blue Shield, and other insurance trade groups.  

At the same time, SEIU president Andy Stern launched the “Divided We Fail” coalition – a multi-million dollar public relations effort for health care legislation that included the Business Roundtable and the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB).

A month later, SEIU unveiled Better Health Care Together (BHCT), yet another partnership of liberal activist groups, labor unions and big business, including AT&T, General Mills, Intel, Kelly Services, Manpower, Embarq and Qwest. Wal-Mart even joined BHCT.

The goal of these coalition-building activities was to make sure that all the Democratic presidential candidates made national health care a priority issue. It worked as all the major Democratic candidates unveiled ambitious national health care proposals.

The proposal for a public option became a focal point during the debates. Liberal strategists knew that if the federal government could use its bargaining power to drive private insurers out of business, a government-run plan was unavoidable.

In July, shortly after Obama secured the Democratic nomination, SEIU launched yet another coalition group. This one was called Health Care for America Now (HCAN) and pledged to spend $40 million on grassroots organizing and media campaigns.

But this time only leftwing groups and labor unions were on the steering committee, including ACORN, AFSCME,, the National Education Association, and Planned Parenthood, each of which donated $500,000.

The Atlantic Philanthropies kicked in an extra $10 million grant. Gara LaMarche, its president, is a former director of the Open Society Institute, the philanthropy founded by George Soros. Obama subsequently endorsed HCAN’s statement of principles.

Obama built his healthcare message on the strategy laid out by Stern and Families USA: Win support from industry groups to defang the opposition, then make passage of health care legislation seem inevitable.

Obama found a key ally in AARP, which offered its full-throated support for Obamacare, even when it became apparent that it include an estimated $500 billion in Medicare cuts. AARP funded ads and town hall events, and its “Health Action Now” website urged visitors to sign a petition demanding Obamacare’s passage.

In the final months of feverish lobbying, the public option became a big obstacle, but when push came to shove HCAN members gave it up.

It was not a pretty process, but Obamacare became law on March 23, 2010.

Philip Klein is a writer based in Washington, D.C. This article was condensed from the original published by the Capital Research Center.

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