Democrats Head Home Hoping to Turn Tide on Health Reform

Posted August 7, 2009 at 10:07am

Senate Democrats are heading home for the August recess betting that a month away from Washington, D.C., will cure what ails them when it comes to enacting health care reform.As evidenced by the reception that some House Democrats have experienced since they began their break last week, Senators are leery of what awaits them back home. But they are hoping that four weeks away from Capitol Hill will allow them to reframe the health care debate on human terms, injecting new life into their effort to enact a bill this fall.“Stick to the basic points. I think if you get into this long-winded explanation of things that might happen, you lose people,— said Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who led the markup of a health care reform bill in the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. “Be basic. Talk about the things that people can relate to and understand.—Senate Republicans, however, contend that the public understands President Barack Obama’s health care agenda just fine, and that that is precisely the problem facing Democrats this August.Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.) said the dissatisfaction with Democratic health care policy runs deep and is growing. Still, Thune conceded that maintaining the political high ground throughout the month and into the fall won’t happen absent an aggressive and consistent effort by the GOP.“The issue has really turned in our direction. … There’s a lot of concern around the country and apprehension among people about the direction this is headed,— Thune said. “The goal is to come back in as good as, or a stronger, position than we are today. And that means that we have to be active because they will be — and their outside groups will be. … What we have to do is, we have to be ready to counterpunch.—During the August recess, Senate Democrats plan to refocus their political message. Rather than focusing on health “care— reform and the uninsured, they will target the insured population by focusing on health “insurance— reform. They will target Republicans and the insurance companies as defenders of a “status quo— responsible for the rising premiums amid unreliable coverage.The Democratic leadership team sent its Members home with a binder that included a list of health care principles and arguments for making their case to different demographics. The goal is to educate constituents and the local media, hoping to shift the public’s opinion of the Democrats’ health care plans, but also influence the press coverage.A very visible Obama promoting health care is also considered key element in Congressional Democrats’ effort, as is Members successfully making a “what’s in it for me— sales pitch to their constituents.“We need to get away from talking process. We got caught up in that a little too much,— a senior Democratic Senate aide said. “We need to go back home with a unified message and do a good job of educating constituents and local media.—Likewise, Senate Republicans’ strategy includes a heavy media presence and outreach to voters during the August recess. GOP operatives say they are confident because they believe Americans are rejecting the Democrats’ health care proposals on policy grounds, rather than on political grounds.“I think the Democrats’ new message will have almost zero affect on the national mood,— a senior Republican Senate aide said. “Democrats have got to hit a homerun over August. They have to hit a grand slam over August to come back and regain the tremendous amount of ground they’ve lost. Thus far, I don’t see how they’re going to do that.—The Senate Democratic Conference on Thursday wrapped up a marathon four days of health care strategy sessions and press events to try to recapture the political high ground. Presentations on policy were given Wednesday by Dodd and Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who is trying to fashion bipartisan legislation in his committee. The bipartisan Finance negotiations are set to continue during the break, with the three Democrats and three Republicans in the group planning video conference meetings and possibly an in-person huddle.On Thursday, White House Senior Adviser David Axelrod and Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina delivered a tutorial on political messaging and how to deal with disruptions at town-hall meetings over the recess.Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) emerged from the Thursday session confident that he and his colleagues would return in September with momentum. The message from Axelrod and Messina, Schumer indicated, was to focus on the policy and not be discouraged by the town-hall protests.They said “that we have the upper hand when people learn what our bill is all about, that there are always disruptors, they’re extreme, and we’ve got to stick to our message and we’ll prevail,— Schumer said.