The Obama Administration is poised for success on health care reform. If the vote tonight unfolds as many of the pundits now say it will, it will be an historic achievement. But how will the history books analyze the topsy-turvy and bumpy ride to the finish line? What will historians point to as the crucial moment when Barack Obama snatched victory from the jaws of defeat? I hope some give credit to the power of the anecdote and the "Natoma Canfield Factor."
Talking points and statistics in this debate have been plentiful. The problem with relying solely on those is that after a while they begin to sound to the American people like the unintelligible teacher in Charlie Brown -- "wah, wah-wah, wah-wah." An anecdote, however, resonates much deeper. It transforms how people see an issue from the intellectual to the emotional -- the quickest and most effective way to influence and persuade the uncommitted.
For the President, the talking point had been "the millions of people who are without health care coverage." The anecdote was the sad tale of Natoma Canfield, who could no longer afford her health insurance 16 years after being treated for cancer. She had written to the President saying she was afraid she would get sick and lose the house her parents had built. The story transformed the debate because it placed a face and a name to the issue. Any person hearing about Ms. Canfield's dilemma would likely stop and think, "What if that happened to me or someone I care for?" Opponents of health care reform did not have ammunition with which to fire back. Even for skilled storytellers, it's much more difficult to make ballooning deficits come to life in the same way. And after all, this debate is about human lives first and economics second.
Will Natoma Canfield become a legendary a figure to health care reform as Rosa Parks was to civil rights? Probably not. But if health care reform is passed tonight, it will be just the latest reminder that real stories about real people trump facts and figures every time.