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An above-the-fold debate that must be fought below the belt

In the race to frame the debate on healthcare reform, Democrats are being outsmarted and outdated by conservatives. It's time to stop pulling punches.

August 04, 2009|DAN NEIL

There are times when I want to quit being a progressive liberal, tear up my ACLU membership card and surrender my implanted mind-control chip through which I receive marching orders from Hugo Chavez. No matter the righteousness of the cause, liberal progressives cannot seem to get on top of any public policy debate, cannot seem to win any war of words -- which is just weird because you have to assume there are many more English majors among liberals.

While opinions on healthcare reform break sharply along partisan lines, with most Democrats in favor and most Republicans opposed, independent voters strongly oppose the healthcare reform measures pending in Congress by a whopping 70% to 27%, according to a recent Pew Research poll. How could the left possibly be losing the debate on healthcare reform when its opponent is the roundly loathed health insurance industry -- an ongoing criminal syndicate, in my view, that demands protection money from sick people?

It's because the insurance industry's demagoguery is better and smarter than the reformists' demagoguery.

This is a gunfight to which the reform agenda has brought a dull spoon. The reform message is so jellied with politesse, so measured, so anti-inflammatory it might as well be made out of Advil.

Case in point: ads featuring Harry and Louise, the first couple of issue advertising. The characters -- played by actors Harry Johnson and Louise Caire Clark -- first appeared in ads sponsored by the healthcare industry in 1993. The couple's scripted fear-mongering -- "they choose, we lose," etc. -- had a devastating effect on healthcare reform plans backed by the Clinton White House.

Suddenly the issue was framed: Witch-in-heels Hillary Clinton was coming to take away your dialysis machine. In the spirit of sportsmanship, advocates of healthcare reform would have to say, touche, well played.

Fast forward to 2009, and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America -- a.k.a. Big Pharma -- along with the little-known advocacy group Families USA, have recruited Harry and Louise to advocate for healthcare reform. The narrative logic seems to be that, 16 years after Hillarycare, the couple -- grayer and wiser -- have seen the error of their ways and that the reversal lends their new position a more solemn credibility. Big government healthcare is not the boogie man . . . more like a golem.

There are a couple of problems with the Harry and Louise ads. The first and most evident is that, because the actors-characters have shown up on both sides of the debate -- and, indeed, made the issue their own cottage industry -- it's clear they are merely for-hire sock puppets. You might as well have Spencer and Heidi advocate for the public option.

The other problem is the Xanaxed tone of their message: "A little more cooperation, a little less politics, and we can get the job done this time."

The American public is being roasted in a caldron of bull like St. Antipas, and this ad calls for increased reasonableness and bipartisanship? With allies like Big Pharma, who needs enemies?

Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee, through its Net-roots operation Organizing for America, has spent weeks and millions on the "It's Time" ad spot, a series of close-ups of people telling their sad tales of falling through the cracks of the healthcare system. "My son has cerebral palsy and epilepsy. He's 4," a sad-eyed woman says, with a minor-key piano arpeggio playing in the background. "My father-in-law walks with a limp because he didn't have healthcare," a man offers. Yeah, boo hoo, so did Ahab.

My God. Do these advertising strategists even live in America? When it comes to healthcare, appealing to the public's sympathy is a dead end. The whole healthcare debate is precisely about avoiding responsibility for less fortunate citizens. Then the kicker: "It's time for healthcare reform."

That's it? That's the galvanizing take-away? It's the emotional equivalent of "It's time to storm the Bastille."

Compare these ads with, for example, the Americans for Prosperity group's Patients First campaign ad. Cue the scary music. "Washington now runs your banks, your insurance and your car companies," the female narrator says while a photo of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi looking like Skeletor flashes on the screen. "But do you trust Washington with your life? $600 billion in new taxes . . . cutting $400 billion from Medicare . . . plus tens of millions will lose their insurance. . . ."

You simply have to concede the point: The insurance industry's ads are more effective. They are big, scary, threatening. Reform gets rolled like the British at the Somme by this ad.

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