Starting today, Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers’ propaganda arm, will run an ad, the first of several that are planned, to attack Obamacare. This marks the official opening salvo of the 2014 election campaign. With no accomplishments, no remotely popular vision of the country, on the cusp of possibly killing immigration reform, and perhaps admitting (at least to themselves) that Benghazi and the IRS are not going to be Barack Obama’s undoing after all, Republicans have been reduced to grasping at their final straw: frightening people about health-care reform. The sad thing is, they stand a decent chance of succeeding. It’s too much to say that the fate of Obama’s legacy hinges on the fate of Obamacare. But it’s probably not too much to say that no other single item will loom as large in determining, 10 to 15 years from now, how Obama’s presidency will be seen. And it’s definitely accurate to say that this is going to be the consuming and defining fight of the remainder of his presidency.
The debut Koch brothers ad is very smart. They’re not shooting for the expected geriatric caucus, or even for the middle-aged couple singing the kitchentable blues à la Harry and Louise. No—here, we have a young mother, pretty (not perky pretty but interesting-looking pretty; she might read books, might even be a liberal) and self-assured. She is “Julie, mother of two.” She speaks of her son “Caleb’s” health issues as a toddler (Caleb!). She’s also pregnant—great touch, that. I don’t know if she’s real or an actress, but if real, I guess I congratulate them for finding her, because they couldn’t have done better making it up.
She goes on to voice her concerns about Obamacare, starting with that old chestnut “If we can’t pick our own doctor…” Nonsense. Conservatives, when asked to defend this, do so by explaining that, well, if A happens and then B and then C, it could … in other words, it’s a Rube Goldberg answer that no one should take seriously. Then there’s “higher premiums and a smaller paycheck.” I don’t know where the “smaller paycheck” comes from (maybe she works for the government and has been furloughed two days a month). But as for the premiums, well, yes, increases are possible. But something beneficial is happening in exchange for those higher rates: sick people who couldn’t previously get insurance will be able to get it now, and more types of medical services will be covered and reimbursed. If you actually want to learn something about this interplay between premium increases and coverage, read this report from the state of California.
But of course talking about all that is explaining, not emoting. On TV, emoting works a lot better, and so Julie here gets the job done. The pro-reform side has its own answering ad and it’s fine, but it’s not as effective. It makes the usual liberal mistake of thinking people will listen to an argument instead of just responding to earnest pleas from pretty blondes.
This much is undeniably true: the implementation of this law is going to be so complicated, so overwhelmingly frustrating to so many people that right-wing hit groups like Americans for Prosperity are going to have an easier time finding horror stories than Meade’s men did mowing down Pickett’s. And that’s where this trench warfare is going to be fought: on the level of anecdote. The pro-reform side isn’t going to get very far with statistics. They need their own army of sympathetic mothers. Remember Stacey Lihn from the Democratic convention of last year? She’s the mother of the 2-year-old girl whose life was saved, her mother said, by Obamacare, because little Zoe’s two previous heart surgeries had pushed her up against the “lifetime cap” that Obamacare made unlawful.
I was in the hall when she spoke, and she was absolutely amazing. I remember having that kind of reaction you have when you start out thinking you’re about to hear something you’ve already heard a thousand times and then slowly it dawns on you that no, there’s something different about this. I’m not sure what it was—she resisted the usual banal clichés and just sounded like a real human being instead of someone prepped to deliver talking points. She was incredible. Needless to say, Democrats being Democrats—which is to say, always second-guessing themselves about whether the emotional approach reeks of blackmail, a pang of conscience that rarely seems to trouble conservatives—we never heard from her again that entire election season. Maybe the time shall come again to call her up to the big leagues (and more seriously, yes, I hope Zoe is thriving).
In any case, this is all the GOP has. They have tried to beat Obama on every front, from the economy to terrorism to the environment to the recent “scandals” to the question of his very legitimacy as president. They’ve lost most of these fights, drawn the occasional draw simply by benefiting from a constitutional system that provides for so many veto points, and never won a single one, really. Even the 2011 debt-ceiling fight, their only arguable “win,” was a loss for them because while Obama lost standing, the Republicans in Congress lost more standing. And, of course, they lost the big fight, the world-historical state versus anti-state fight—the one over Obamacare.
They are going to spend the next three and a half years trying to reverse that loss. They’re going to start in the mostly red states where incumbent Democratic senators face tough fights next year, or where incumbent Democrats are retiring and the seat might swing: North Carolina, Alaska, Louisiana, South Dakota, West Virginia, Iowa, Michigan. And they’ll never stop. In the House, they’ll try to repeal Obamacare another 38 times. Having largely failed to destroy Obama the president and man, they will, as the sun sets on Obama’s term, try to destroy his legacy. They’ll try to do so largely by attacking Obamacare. The president and his defenders had better be ready.