Health care supporters overshadowed by oppositionby Chris Roberts, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — The need for health care reform was a major factor in Barack Obama's victory in last year's presidential election. But as Congress has been debating reform, Obama's opponents have been more active and vocal than his supporters.
It's not easy to get people excited about something as abstract as a public health care option. But that's what volunteers for the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org were attempting to do in front of the Federal building in St. Paul last Friday.
They waved signs at passing cars reading 'Honk if you're for a public option,' and occasionally, drivers obliged.
The demonstrators were more like cheerleaders trying to get the crowd back in the game. Organizer Donna Olsen admits her side doesn't seem to be nearly as charged up as the other side.
"We are somewhat disappointed in that," Olsen said. "Unfortunately, some people just don't understand exactly what the health care reform is about, and that's what we're out here trying to do is get the information out there."
Some blame the media for the confusion. They charge that it's pre-occupied with protesters shouting down reform at town hall meetings across the country. Others think the president is at fault for not adequately explaining what's at stake.
Most, however, credit administration opponents with being successful in framing the debate so far. That leaves supporters like stay-at-home mom Jennifer Baxa, 31, of St. Peter, watching from the sidelines.
"Personally, I think a lot of people on the left are feeling burned out after the huge fights of the last eight years, and I think that they're just kind of holding their breath to see how the bill [is] actually going to look before they really jump in," Baxa said.
And that's important to Baxa, who said that until there's an actual bill to discuss, it's pointless to get pumped up.
Meanwhile, St. Paul retiree Joel Klemmer isn't excited about any of the proposals being discussed in Washington. Klemmer, who advocates a single payer health care system, doesn't even think a public option goes far enough.
"Therefore I guess I'm an example of somebody who thinks that what we would pass in Congress right now is perhaps better than nothing, but I find it very difficult to get very enthusiastic about it," Klemmer said.
Klemmer said opponents of reform have been energized by myths that generate a lot of emotion, such as the notion of death panels or coverage for illegal immigrants. Supporters can make what Klemmer calls a rational, even wonky, argument in favor of reform that relies on facts.
"However, it sure isn't like watching a football game," he said. "It sure isn't emotionally engaging for most people, and we have that going against us."
For Dan McGrath, what it comes down to is a difference in strategy. McGrath is executive director of the liberal coalition, Take Action Minnesota. McGrath said for every three people who disrupt town hall forums, there are hundreds who've been mistreated by the health care system and are speaking up.
"The sort of tactics that we are employing as organizers are about bringing real people and real stories to members of Congress [and] sharing those experiences so that we can change the tide of the debate within Congress." McGrath said.
McGrath thinks the town hall protests are more about opposing the president than health care reform, and Edward Schiappa, department chair of the University of Minnesota's Department of Communication Studies, agrees. Schiappa calls the protests 'the election, part two. '
"It is a continued effort by the right to paint Obama as other, to demonize the policies, and also, as we saw in the election, there is whole sale lying going on," Schiappa said.
Of course Obama won the election, but Schiappa said if he wants to win this debate he has to be more focused and persistent when conveying his case to the public.
"The message needs to be, 'look, we have this many people who are going broke or are suffering because they can't get health insurance; this reform does four things,' and then stay on message," Schiappa said.
What's ironic for Schiappa is how, when you compare the health care reform debate to demonstrations against the Vietnam War in the late 60s, the roles has reversed.
He said conservative republicans have co-opted the in-your-face agitation of the anti-war movement, while supporters of reform, even though they have the power in Washington, look more like Richard Nixon's so-called silent majority.
- Morning Edition, 08/26/2009, 7:25 a.m.