Friday Talking Points [86] -- Obama Warms Up In The Bullpen

Much to the dismay of just about everyone who breathlessly follows politics, the Senate hearings on the confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor turned out to be mostly a snoozer. Web sites (left and right) were liveblogging and Twittering like crazy all week, and the upshot was: "It's a foregone conclusion, she will be confirmed." Which everyone knew already, at the beginning of the week. But it didn't stop the breathlessness online.

The only real question in the hearings was how large a foot Republicans were going to insert into their collective mouth. The answer: medium-sized. Republicans on the Senate committee had a tightrope to walk this week, and the only drama was whether they would fall into the net of public yawns, or plummet to being the "Permanent Minority Party -- And Definitely Not THAT Kind Of Minority, Thank You Very Much." Republicans, you see, live in a world called "the 1950s." They must have all brightened up considerably when Sotomayor herself brought up Perry Mason (which caused the historic First Official Senatorial Joke to be uttered by Al Franken, it should be noted for posterity's sake). The geezers must have thought, "Perry Mason! Finally.... finally... a cultural reference I understand!!"

Unfortunately, this caused one of them to short-circuit a bit, and he tossed in what he obviously thought was a witty pop culture reference to the only Latino he was aware of -- Ricky Ricardo. Seriously, guys, I Love Lucy was on television a half-century ago. "You got some splainin' to do" is not exactly relevant, and not exactly funny. That whole "making fun of stereotypes of minorities" thing was a laugh riot in the 1950s, and sold a lot of Brylcreem and Burma Shave, but it's considered gauche in today's world. Just for your information.

Because, you see, there's a wonderful new political science called "demographics" in today's world. Let's just take a peek at what Mr. Demographics has to say, shall we? "Latinos don't like stupid stereotypes from the 1950s." Wow! What a pearl of wisdom! What other wise words do demographics have to say? "Latinos pay attention when you insult them, and they remember who insulted them when they vote." Wait, you mean -- unlike most Americans -- their attention span is longer than back to what Letterman said last week? What a stunner! Any final words from the demographics? "Latinos are the future of electoral politics in America -- lose them and you will die as a political party." Looks like the memos that the Republicans have been ignoring are certainly piling up in the old "IN" basket, doesn't it?

But seriously, I mostly didn't pay close (and breathless!) attention to the hearings this week because, as I said, unless Sotomayor started shooting Republican Senators dead (something she was actually politely discussing with Senator Tom Coburn when he began channeling the ghost of Ricky Ricardo -- you just can't make this stuff up), the confirmation hearings were nothing more than a formality. The question of how many Republicans will actually vote for her is still open, but the question of whether she's going to be our next Supreme Court Justice is simply not.

So, as the Republican Party sinks slowly in the South, we move on to more pressing business -- our weekly awards!


That's actually a pretty good line -- "as the Republican Party sinks slowly in the South" -- I think I should start using it more often.


Sorry about that. Where were we? Awards! There was actually a lot of action in Washington this week, as Congress scurries to actually do something the private sector calls "get some actual work done" so that it can (whew!) take a five-week break next month. But dominating all else was healthcare reform, as this is the crunch time. What happens in D.C. in the next three weeks may determine if healthcare reform passes this year, and -- more importantly -- if it will actually do anything, or just publish "tomorrow's deck chair arrangement" for all the passengers on the good ship "Titanic Waste Of Time."

Progress is being made, I am happy to report. Or, as Sarah Palin would say, "Congress is doin' that progressin', and also progressifyin' the progressional nature of healthcare reform." Ahem.

But not to get sidetracked! Actually, that is the main goal right now for Congress as well -- not to get sidetracked. Thankfully, three-fifths of the committees responsible have actually passed legislation, which is where we find our Most Impressive Democrats Of The Week this week.

But first, an Honorable Mention simply must be given to Pat Leahy, the Senate chairman responsible for moving Sotomayor's confirmation along on schedule. If you'll remember, Republicans tried the tactic of "delay, delay, delay" on the hearings. A while back, Leahy shot them down and went ahead and scheduled the hearings anyway, so the floor vote could happen before the August break. He kept to his schedule, and deserves commendation for doing so. Harry Reid could learn a few things from Leahy about ignoring the slings and arrows of outrageous Republican obstructionism, that's for sure.

But this week's MIDOTW awards go out to Senator Chris Dodd, and Representatives George Miller and Charlie Rangel, for all getting healthcare bills voted out of the committees they chair. In Miller and Rangel's case, it was the same bill.

Now, in the larger scene of sausage-making in D.C., this may not sound very impressive, so let's put it in a bit of context. Bill Clinton didn't get this far. Clinton's healthcare reform never made it out of committee. And, even more astounding, the three House chairmen responsible for healthcare bills got together long ago and worked on a single bill to speed the process up. The committee chairs, by doing so, gave up some of their feudal "it's my committee, dammit!" powers, which is virtually unheard of in Washington. So, while we're not out of the woods yet by far (see next section), we've come a long way, baby.

And what the heck, I'll hand out another Honorable Mention to the third House chair, who faces a stiffer fight in his committee (due to an infestation of Blue Dogs), Henry Waxman. Waxman will have a fight on his hands next week as his committee tackles the bill, but he deserves credit so far for being part of the effort in the House to get together on one bill instead of three.

So congratulate Senator Dodd (who, it should be noted, is standing in for Teddy Kennedy, who is the actual chair of the Senate committee, but who has been sidelined due to continuing health problems), and Representatives Miller and Rangel, for earning this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award by actually getting bills voted out of committee that included a public option.

[Congratulate Senator Chris Dodd on his Senate contact page, Representative George Miller on his House contact page, and Representative Charlie Rangel on his House contact page, to let them know you appreciate their efforts.]


While the House is showing how the legislative process can be streamlined to the point of actually achieving results (gasp!), over in the Senate it is, sadly, business as usual.

The "Gang of Six" in the Senate (aside: what is with all the "gangs" on Capitol Hill anyway? Insert your own West Side Story joke here, I guess, in the spirit of everyone else doing so this week...) is a group of what the media will no doubt label "moderates," who apparently woke up this week and discovered that they were in imminent peril of seeing actual reform pass.

"Well," they said in unison to themselves, "we certainly can't have any of that around here." Because, as far as they are concerned, the longstanding Senate tradition is to make a lot of smoke and noise about reforming healthcare, hold some hearings, get everyone all emotional, and then conveniently run out the clock -- until they shake their heads sadly in December and tell their constituents: "We really tried... maybe next year... oh, and don't forget to reelect me."

As I said, this is a tradition. They've been doing this dance for decades.

The facts speak for themselves. While Kennedy's committee (led by Chris Dodd due to Kennedy's absence) successfully passed a bill this week, Max Baucus' committee did not. President Obama himself started to get a little exasperated with Baucus this week, and is starting to put the pressure on him to get his work done by the August break. Baucus is pushing back with all he's got. According to him (and virtually no one else), it's all about the bipartisanship of the bill, not whether it works or actually gets passed. It's got to be all bipartisanshippy, you see -- that's the main thing. Even Obama, who sees himself as captain of the Bipartisan Ship Of State at times, has had enough of this bushwah, and is banging a calendar over some Democratic heads in frustration.

Today, the pushback came. Six senators have sent a letter which begs for more time -- two or three months would work for them -- to chase the red herring of bipartisanship down the rabbit hole of obstructionism (OK, that metaphor was too twisted even for me, sorry, it won't happen again).

Two of these senators are the most moderate Republicans left standing, the ladies from Maine. One is perennial fly-in-the-Democrats'-ointment Joe Lieberman. But three of the signatories to this letter are card-carrying Democrats: Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Ron Wyden of Oregon. And they are all hereby awarded the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week for their foolishness.

And, because a commenter a few weeks ago asked for more specific information on the link between healthcare lobbying dollars and these usual suspects, I have to include an excerpt from an excellent article by fellow Huffington Post blogger Paul Blumenthal here, where he calculates what the 70 extra days they're asking for mean, in lobbying-world terms:

Sen. Mary Landrieu raised $1,676,353 from the health and insurance sectors over the course of her career. Her first day in office was January 7, 1997. In total, she has served 4,574 days as a United States Senator. This calculates out to her raising $366.50 every day from the health and insurance sectors. Seventy more days would yield $25,655.

Sen. Joe Lieberman raised $3,593,771 from the health and insurance sectors over the course of his career. His first day in office, as a senator, was January 3, 1989. In total, he has served 7,136 days as a United States Senator. This works out to him raising $504 a day from the health and insurance sectors. Seventy more days would yield $35,280.

Sen. Ben Nelson raised $2,257,165 from the health and insurance sectors over the course of his career. His first day in office, as a senator, was January 3, 2001. In total, he has served 3,118 days as a United States Senator. This works out to him raising $724 a day from the health and insurance sectors. Seventy more days would yield $50,680.

. . .

Sen. Ron Wyden raised $1,414,911 from the health and insurance sectors over the course of his career. His first day in office, as a senator, was February 6, 1996. In total, he has served 4,911 days as a United States Senator. This works out to $288 every day from the health and insurance sectors. Seventy more days would yield $20,160.

So, a (Dis-)Honorable Mention to chairman Max Baucus (who probably didn't want to sign the letter because he's chair of the committee, but who also definitely agrees with the "let's give it a few more months" nonsense), and a Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week (with special "roadblock clusters" for sheer obstructionism) goes out to Senators Landrieu, Lieberman (I know he's not a Democrat, but we just can't seem to stop giving him MDDOTW awards for some reason), Nelson, and Wyden. If you can't lead, senators, at least have the decency to get out of the way. Hmmph.

[Contact Senator Mary Landrieu on her Senate contact page, Senator Joe Lieberman on his Senate contact page, Senator Ben Nelson on his Senate contact page, and Senator Ron Wyden on his Senate contact page, to let them know what you think of their actions.]


Volume 86 (7/17/09)

President Barack Obama, in baseball terms, is a good "closer." He sees himself as the pitcher who comes on in the later innings of a close game, and saves the team at the last minute. This, as evidenced by his bully-pulpit-ing so far, is Obama's style.

And this week, he started warming up in the bullpen. He has not quite hit his stride on healthcare, but he is definitely getting there. He came back from an overseas trip and apparently took a look at cable television, which was running with the story (for only the 78th time this year) "healthcare legislation looks dead, folks!" Obama realized he needed to get back in the game, and has started ramping up a more visible presence on the issue. The first thing he did, after reading my column last week (ahem), was to "show some steel" to Congress and threaten to not let them go off on vacation unless they get their homework handed in on time. But this big stick was spoken of softly. So far.

People who live outside the Beltway may not realize this, but this is the most effective threat to hold over any Congresscritter's head: "you may be forced to stay in Washington during August!" Spend the month in D.C. and you will quickly see why this threat carries so much weight (weather report for the entire month: 95 degrees, 95 percent humidity). The specter of working in a dark three-piece-suit through this part of the year causes a case of the screaming meemies to politicians. So it's a bigger stick than you might think.

Obama kind-of-sort-of took Max Baucus out to the woodshed as well this week, and also unveiled an ad chock full of healthcare horror stories, which will run in wavering Democrats' home districts. This is also effective, no matter what Harry Reid thinks about it.

But Obama's real strength this week was beginning to get his message out from that famous bully pulpit. The message itself needs a little refining, but it's a good start. Obama has made two statements in the past few days (one with nurses at his side, and one more sweeping statement today), and he has announced he'll be giving a high-profile press conference next week as well, right in the thick of the fight in the two remaining congressional committees.

Democrats, in general, need to stop with the wonk-speak, and start using better framing on the issue. Obama made some steps in this direction, which I'd like to point out here, for other Democrats to consider.

Because, out in the real world, "single-payer" and "public plan" and "co-op" and all the rest of the wonkitude is largely ignored. What normal Americans want to know is, quite simply: How will this make my life better?

And this question, insanely enough, largely remains unanswered by most Democrats you see being interviewed by the media. Which is just stupid, because this is where the battle can be won (and lost, for that matter).

So here are today's Friday Talking Points, where we build upon Obama's words. All talking points are direct Obama quotes, from the two links above.


   Define the problem

After a charming and very human story praising the nurses he met when his children were born (and -- one assumes much to the dismay of the First Children -- spoke of them as "a couple of fat little babies"), Obama put things in terms the average American can relate to beautifully. This drum needs a lot more beating. It's a big drum, and it has prominently painted on the side of it: "The status quo sucks, and we know it." Republicans scoff at these heartrending stories at their peril, because the Republican dogma of "if you're poor (or, in this case, sick), it's your fault" is just not going to fly this time. Because even Republican voters face these problems on a daily basis.

"And that's why it's safe to say that few understand why we have to pass reform as intimately as our nation's nurses. They see firsthand the heartbreaking costs of our health care crisis. They hear the same stories that I've heard across this country -- of treatment deferred or coverage denied by insurance companies; of insurance premiums and prescriptions that are so expensive they consume a family's entire budget; of Americans forced to use the emergency room for something as simple as a sore throat just because they can't afford to see a doctor."


   Define the status quo

This is going to be more and more effective, since the Republicans quite obviously have no ideas of their own. They have painted themselves into the corner of defending the status quo, and even though they don't seem to realize it, it's a pretty bad corner to be in.

"And they understand that this is a problem that we can no longer defer. We can't kick the can down the road any longer. Deferring reform is nothing more than defending the status quo -- and those who would oppose our efforts should take a hard look at just what it is that they're defending. Over the last decade, health insurance premiums have risen three times faster than wages. Deductibles and out-of-pocket costs are skyrocketing. And every single day we wait to act, thousands of Americans lose their insurance, some turning to nurses in emergency rooms as their only recourse."


   Defense of the status quo is not acceptable

Keep hitting this same theme in different ways, as it is the Democrats' best argument -- something must be done!

"Now, I realize that the last few miles of any race are the hardest to run, but I have to say now is not the time to slow down, and now is certainly not the time to lose heart. Make no mistake, if we step back from this challenge at this moment, we are consigning our children to a future of skyrocketing premiums and crushing deficits. There's no argument about that.

"If we don't achieve health care reform, we cannot control the costs of Medicare and Medicaid and we cannot control our long-term debt and our long-term deficits. That's not in dispute. So we're going to have to get this done.

"If we don't get health care reform done now, then no one's health insurance is going to be secure, because you're going to continue to see premiums going up at astronomical rates, out-of-pocket costs going up at astronomical rates, and people who lose their jobs or have a preexisting medical condition or changing their jobs finding themselves in a situation where they cannot get health care.

"And that's not a future that I accept for the United States of America. That's why those who are betting against this happening this year are badly mistaken.

"We are going to get this done. We will reform health care. It will happen this year. I'm absolutely convinced of that."


   Reassure Middle America

Obama has been saying this all along, but there's a reason why it needs repeating so often -- so everyone will hear it eventually. Middle America needs to be reassured that things are going to get better, and if you like what you've got, you can keep it.

"I know a lot of Americans who are satisfied with their health care right now are wondering what reform would mean for them, so let me be clear: If you like your doctor or health care provider, you can keep them. If you like your health care plan, you can keep that too.

"But here's what else reform will mean for you -- and this is for people who have health insurance: You will save money. If you lose your job, change your job, or start a new business, you'll still be able to find quality health insurance that you can afford. If you have a preexisting medical condition, no insurance company will be able to deny you coverage. You won't have to worry about being priced out of the market. You won't have to worry about one illness leading your family into financial ruin. That's what reform means, not just for the uninsured but for the people who have health insurance right now."


   Define the solution

This, again, is something Democrats just have not said effectively yet. This section had to be edited for length, Obama goes through a laundry list of things that Congress has already largely agreed to, and is well worth reading to see the full list. But the key word is YOU. YOU will get this or that, YOU will have choices, YOU will pay less, YOU will not have to go bankrupt if YOU get sick. This directly-targeted marketing needs to be the center argument of every Democrat. Put yourselves in the voters' shoes. Try to see things the way they do on healthcare. Talk about actual, concrete things (bad and good) that American families experience and worry about. You've got to reach your audience, and I've been simply astonished at the Democrats seeming inability to make such simple points in this debate.

"So this is what health insurance reform will mean for the average American. It will mean lower costs, more choices and coverage you can count on. It will save you and your family money.

"You won't have to worry about being priced out of the market. You won't have to worry about one illness leading to your family going into financial ruin.

"Americans will have coverage that finally has stability and security, and Americans who don't have health insurance will finally have affordable quality options.

"These are the areas where we agree right now. And this consensus has brought us closer to the goal of health insurance reform than ever before. "


   Define the goals

Obama is talking here about the two bills (House and Senate) that have passed committees so far. He (and other Democrats) need to explain why what Democrats are fighting for is a good thing, and not merely some catchphrase the media and the politicians are batting around.

"Both proposals will take what's best about our system today and make it the basis for our system tomorrow -- reducing costs, raising quality, and ensuring fair treatment of consumers by the insurance industry. Both include a health insurance exchange, a marketplace that will allow families and small businesses to compare prices, services, and the quality, so they can choose the plan that best suits their needs. And among the choices available would be a public health insurance option that would make health care more affordable by increasing competition, providing more choices, and keeping insurance companies honest. Both proposals will offer stability and security to Americans who have coverage today, and affordable options to those who don't."


   Drive it home

Paint the entire issue, over and over again, as critical for the future of America. This is not cynical, as it truly is a foundational problem which will collapse our economy if not changed. So throw in some high-falutin' language at the end, just to remind everyone of the magnitude of the challenge we face.

"Our nurses are on board. The American people are on board. It's now up to us. We can do what we've done for so long and defer tough decisions for another day -- or we can step up and meet our responsibilities. In other words, we can lead. We can look beyond the next news cycle and the next election to the next generation, and come together to build a system that works not just for these nurses, but for the patients they care for; for doctors and hospitals; for families and businesses -- and for our very future as a nation."


Chris Weigant blogs at:

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Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground