Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Committing Journalism

Health reform opposition turns to professional fakers Nov. 10: TRMS Investigates: Rachel Maddow is joined by MSNBC contributor Michael Isikoff to talk about the way the DCI Group PR firm uses a fake grassroots strategy to advocate corporate interests.
Waldman: A look back at the House health bill fight
So the health insurance reform bill is through the House on its first pass. There's a weakened version of the public option in there. That's good. And there's the Stupak amendment in there. That's bad.

The inclusion of the Stupak amendment has a couple of great backstories about activism and organizing, if you look for them.

First, of course, there's the story of the vast, lavishly-funded national network of professional abortion rights advocacy groups who somehow found themselves blindsided and rolled by a situation that was 100% predictable (not to mention 35 years in the making), and will now have to either threaten to kill the entire bill if the Senate is unable to resist the temptation to pass the same language, or release 40+ super-progressive women legislators and allies to vote for a health insurance reform bill that for all practical purposes nearly eliminates access to abortion that isn't paid for up front and in cash. Ordinarily, that'd be ludicrous, except for the fact that those super-progressive legislators just voted for exactly that, though surely they'd explain that they just did it "to move the process forward."

Second, there's the story of the voices in the wilderness, the single payer advocates, who settled for the promise of a floor vote on the Weiner amendment, only to see that amendment withdrawn in a deal to avoid... the Stupak amendment, only to see that amendment not withdrawn and ultimately given a floor vote and be adopted.

The public option -- to the extent it was saved (and that's yet to be determined) -- was saved by taking a sober look at the legislative playing field, identifying where the cracks in the dam would appear, and building the best bulwark against it that an ad hoc network of advocates could build, working it, grooming it, and maintaining it. Vote pledges were sought early on, lined up and reinforced in advance of the committee markups, with a special emphasis on seeing those pledges through all the way through conference.

Abortion rights advocates, on the other hand, had an existing network of professional lobbyists and policy analysts, plus a multi-million dollar funding base, not to mention nearly 35 years of lead time in terms of knowing that any health care bill would include a serious abortion threat (counted from the earliest days of the Hyde amendment on), and yet their efforts seemed next to invisible, and they now look to be in position not only to possibly lose, but to put their biggest supporters in Congress in danger of voting the wrong way on their signature issue.

Even if you don't buy the idea of starting the clock on threats to abortion rights in the health care bill with the advent of the Hyde amendment, Bart Stupak was open about his demands on the bill from early on, committing them to a letter to the Speaker as early as June.

But the professional advocates appear to have been caught largely by surprise by Stupak's maneuvering. Reacting much too late in the game, they were forced to rely on "urgent" emails to their lists of supporters to drive calls to Congress on the day of the floor vote. That's a game that's perhaps slightly more effective for amendments than for entire bills, but it's almost always way, way, way too late in the process to make a big impact. (In truth, urgent "call your Representatives!" emails sent on the day of a vote are usually designed to keep you "involved" as a donor, not effective as an activist. But that's another story.)

As I said, the anti-choice threat to federal health care legislation is going on 35 years old. It's a known threat, and just as much is known about the efficacy of different approaches to activism and lobbying on those threats. When, in those 35 years, has a bunch of phone calls stemmed the steady tide of erosion of reproductive rights?

So the effort of the professionals now turns to praying for a conference miracle. That's always possible, but now it's the play that was once floated for the public option, only in reverse.

That is, it was once speculated that the Senate would exclude the public option in order to get a bill to conference, but that there could be a super secret plan to accede to the House position on it in conference, and that way make conservative Dems in the Senate vote on it (and cloture) only once, but in so doing it would appear right up until the last minute as if the public option were being abandoned, and there would in fact be no second chance to revive it if something went wrong with the super secret plan.

Now the shoe is on the other foot, and the abortion rights community must await the super secret plan that looks, right up until the last minute, like they're being thrown under the bus.

And of course, the public option still has to survive the process as well.

So you're looking at two distinct groups and issues, both basically praying for the same procedural miracle, of which supply is typically fairly short.

Will one be traded for the other?

It's a plausible enough trade. As Marcy Wheeler theorized in an e-mail exchange, so long as the Senate side dynamics still appear to revolve around Olympia Snowe (R-ME). Snowe's both pro-choice and an opponent of the public option. So it makes for a great play: win Snowe's support, win the thanks of progressives who are at least picking up hints about the removal of the Stupak language in conference, and be rid of the public option and the nascent but pesky progressive bloc that had begun to coalesce around it.

That result, though, would represent something of a bailout of a permanent, professional pro-choice advocacy community that's become "too big to fail," even when they're caught flat-footed and do nothing in the way of preparation to fight the biggest and most visibly telegraphed attack on their position in decades. Meanwhile, outsider startup advocacy and legislative strategy efforts finally beginning to find their way and actually learn to enter the game have their first tiny win (if it is one) flushed down the toilet for big advocacy's comfort.

That's just one way of looking at it, of course.

On the single payer front, things have got to be even more frustrating. An embarrassing series of surrenders marked an already uphill battle as the process moved forward in the House, beginning with Rep. Anthony Weiner's (D-NY-09) agreement not to offer his single payer amendment in the Energy & Commerce Committee in exchange for the promise of a floor vote on that amendment. And, well, we all saw what happened on Friday, when Weiner again miraculously agreed not to offer his single payer amendment on the floor, either.

The tragedy (or dark comedy, depending on how you look at it) is that Weiner allegedly withdrew his amendment again when he heard that the leadership would be disallowing all amendments across the board, so that they could block Stupak without having the political mess of picking and choosing between amendments individually. That, of course, worked out spectacularly.

So in the end it was the advocates who relied on the super-secret delayed gratification plan who went home empty-handed here. Single payer gets nowhere, and it's got to at least be in part because of reliance on strategies that always seem to fall victim to situations like this one, in which Anthony Weiner spends the summer being lauded as a fearless hero and a champion, even as he ends up walking away from the fight twice.

Does every similar situation end up working itself out in exactly the same way? Of course not. But let the single payer amendment's path to death (taken twice) be a lesson to those who advocate betting on the "two in the bush" side of a gamble on legislative procedure.

We are a long, long way from finished with this bill, of course. And there are some powerful and monied interests who we'd consider to wear white hats in this fight who still have chits they can call in which should not be discounted. Conference miracles do happen. But the basic rule is and always has been that the obstacles faced by those who want to change legislation grow exponentially as the process moves forward. That rule has application for those now clinging to "fix it in conference" strategies, those whose champions (it is now revealed in hindsight) played things too clever by half on single payer, and probably for those relying on the "they'll never dare" strategies floating around the opt-out, too.

To this point, it's been the public option -- championed by those yahoo, know-nothing, pajama-wearing Cheeto munchers -- that, weakened though it may be, has ridden the most traditional, predictable and effective path to inclusion in the final bill: get your ducks in a row early, and fight hard every step of the way to keep them there, no matter how appealing each successive excuse for stepping out of line may seem at the time.

Hoekstra unrestrained on intel reveal Nov. 10: Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-MI, has revealed information about accused Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan that was not disclosed by the FBI or any other government agency. Rachel Maddow talks about his recklessness with Chris Hayes, Washington editor for The Nation.

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