For Dems, now the work begins

Lanny Davis Former Special Counsel to President Bill Clinton
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I wrote many columns in this space expressing concerns, especially after the Massachusetts Senate election of Republican Scott Brown, that passing a comprehensive healthcare bill by a narrow, entirely partisan margin, even if possible, would divide the country and risk the Democratic majority in the House and possibly even the Senate.

Despite these concerns, which I still harbor, I am proud that our nation finally has national healthcare — first proposed by Republican President Theodore Roosevelt two centuries ago and Democratic President Harry Truman more than a century ago. President Obama and Democrats in Congress have exhibited the classic John Kennedy “profile in courage” — standing on principle at great political risk but as a matter of conscience.

But if Democrats are to avoid a political bloodbath in November, the president and Democratic congressional leaders must spend substantial time in the coming weeks and months explaining this legislation in simple terms. Perhaps this can be done through presidential “fireside chats” and regular colloquies at the end of each day’s session of Congress.

The messages should be simple, repetitive and largely aimed at the 85 percent who already have health insurance — where most of the public opposition currently comes from. They must correct the four major Republican distortions about the legislation — namely, that the new system (1) is a government takeover, (2) will impose higher taxes, (3) will cause higher medical costs and deficits and (4) will interfere with the doctor-patient relationship and reduce quality healthcare.

Each one of these claims is demonstrably false:

There is no “government takeover” whatsoever. The bill creates new access to entirely private insurance for the uninsured — while also leaving employer-provided insurance entirely private. Moreover, under the new plan, 85 percent of the American people who are already insured will never have to worry about having no access to insurance if they lose their jobs or due to a pre-existing condition. This is the most important indisputable fact of all.

An overwhelming majority of Americans will not have to pay higher taxes because of this new healthcare legislation. Even among the very small percentage who will — largely among upper-income people — most should experience a net savings due to regulation of excessive increases in insurance premiums that would otherwise have taken place, such as the nearly 40 percent increase announced by California’s Athena Blue Cross policy (which was suspended after public pressure even before this law was enacted).

It is false that this new law will increase the deficit — exactly the opposite is the case. The Congressional Budget Office — touted by both parties as credible and nonpartisan — has determined that this legislation will reduce the budget deficit by over $150 billion the next 10 years. And most medical care experts believe that only under this bill can the current unsustainable inflation in healthcare costs be reduced.

The quality of healthcare for the 85 percent of those insured will be unaffected — and there is nothing in this legislation that changes the current doctor-patient relationship. Indeed, under the new system, both doctor and patient should be more effectively empowered to prevent insurance companies and HMOs from denying coverage willy-nilly, and as already noted, no longer can any American be denied insurance coverage due to pre-existing conditions.

The Republicans won too many weeks and months of the communications wars because the administration and the Democrats didn’t have a single piece of legislation to explain, allowing opponents to distort the substance of the healthcare proposals — such as the notorious lies about “death panels” included in the legislation.

Now Democrats have a real law, in black-and-white words, to get the facts out. If they do so, Democrats could end up avoiding anything more than the usual traditional by the opposition party in midterm elections.

But even if the worst happens and Democrats lose the House or Senate or both in November, would I still believe it was worth it for Democrats to enact this historic national healthcare legislation? I would have said no until just recently when I was contacted by a close friend who had read my previously published doubts about the political consequences of seeking 100 percent comprehensive healthcare legislation this year rather than incremental change.

He e-mailed me the following question: If you were a U.S. senator or congressman and knew you would probably not get reelected, and Democrats would probably lose control of Congress, if you all voted for the Civil Rights Acts in the 1960s, would you have still voted for them?

“Yes,” I answered his e-mail back — without hesitation.

I realized that my answer was based on my core value judgment — with all due respect to my Republican conservative friends who have a different view — that providing virtually all Americans with access to healthcare, regardless of wealth, has the same moral imperative for me for a just and civil society as did the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s.

In a column titled “Purple Nation,” I can only hope that thoughtful and fair-minded conservative Republicans, who opposed this legislation out of sincere convictions it was wrong for America, will now rally behind the president to help ensure that it works fairly and effectively for all Americans — red, blue and in between.

This piece also appears today, March 25,  2010, in Mr. Davis’s regular weekly column in The Hill “Purple Nation”.

Davis, a Washington lawyer and former special counsel to President Clinton from 1996-98, served as a member of President George W. Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in 2005-06. He is the author of Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics is Destroying America  (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).