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Just the Facts, Ma'am

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Tomorrow's health care meeting between President Obama and the leaders of both parties in Congress will be an important one, no matter what the result. While important, though, I refuse to call this meeting a "summit," since Democratic and Republican politicians squabbling simply does not reach the heights of two nuclear powers tensely sitting down to talk about missiles. But no matter what you call it, tomorrow's meeting will likely be either "when health reform legislation became inevitable" or "when Republicans finally killed health reform." And while there is no shortage of advice out there today from pundits, I'd like to suggest Democrats take a page from the fictional Sergeant Joe Friday. Whenever the star of Dragnet was confronted by an emotional outburst from a witness or crime victim, he would supposedly utter his signature line (Note: like the line "Play it again, Sam," this line was never actually uttered on the show), in a plea for non-emotional rationality: "Just the facts, Ma'am." Democrats should do the equivalent tomorrow.

This will be easy enough for President Obama to accomplish, since he's probably the most Joe-Friday-ish of the bunch. But he should be backed up by Democrats who have the facts close at hand, in detail and in great number, from unimpeachable sources. If Democrats counter Republican rhetoric with hard, cold facts, it may not guarantee success for their objective; but it certainly will go a long way toward showing who is serious about fixing the problem, and who is not.

To borrow another television catchphrase, the truth is out there. Facts and figures which make the Democrats' case for them abound. Many people have devoted much time to assembling these facts in a desperate bid to get Democrats to start using them in their arguments (see: the entire Lefty blogosphere for the past year). Democrats, sadly, have been woefully inadequate to the task of presenting these facts to the American public. Tomorrow may be their last chance at being able to do so in any meaningful way, which is why it'll be an important meeting.

I'm not going to try to assemble a complete list of facts for Democrats to use, but I will put forth a few that should be major themes for Democrats to hit tomorrow. Republicans have made it easy, since they've already leaked their biggest talking point: leave it to the private sector, because government screws up everything it touches and the glorious Invisible Hand of the Free Market (genuflect towards Wall Street when saying this) will solve the problem, as it always does so magically.

Seriously, that's what they're going to lead with. It's like Republicans are handing a shotgun to the Democrats and beckoning them towards a barrel filled with thrashing catfish. All Democrats need to do is pull the trigger, and make sure the gun isn't pointed backwards.

Here's the ammunition for that gun: "thirty-nine percent."

Here is how to use it:

REPUBLICAN: We firmly believe in the powers of the Free Market... blah blah blah... marketplace solution... blather blather... no big-government takeover... blahbitty blah... private sector best at solving problems... rabble rabble rabble... government needs to get out of the way... flim flam flim flam... (with bowed head and hushed voice) the great Ronald Reagan himself... blah blah blah blah endless blah.

DEMOCRAT: So you're OK with an insurer raising their rates thirty-nine percent in one year? Because that is how your vaunted "private marketplace" is solving the problem, sir. Let's see, if I spend $1,000 on health care this year, with that rate of increase, in ten years I will be paying $19,370 -- and in twenty years I will be paying over a half-million dollars per year on health insurance. That is what the system we have in place today has delivered, ladies and gentleman, and that is the problem we are trying to fix. Private companies exist to make money. And the laws we have today allow them to do this. We want to change the health industry in this country so that our children aren't faced with half-million-dollar health insurance costs in two decades. Because that is the path the private marketplace is on, and if you succeed in killing any health reform that is precisely where it will lead us. That, in other words, is the status quo "free marketplace" that you are defending.

REPUBLICAN: But... but... private market, dammit!

DEMOCRAT: I ask you again -- it's a simple yes-or-no question -- are you OK with an insurer raising their rates thirty-nine percent in one year? Because that's what your vaunted free market just delivered, so I'm sure your constituents would like the answer to that question.

Republicans have been used to speaking in front of crowds of people who agree with them on basic issues. They are not used to being confronted by facts which don't fit their world view. They are used to audiences which cheer and give adulation, instead of facts and questions. This was their downfall when President Obama went to visit them recently, and this can also be their downfall tomorrow. They are sharpening up their talking points, and expect their rhetoric to carry the day in front of television viewers. All Democrats need to do is to present actual facts and figures to contradict their conservative viewpoint. The Congressional Budget Office (C.B.O.) folks will be sitting at the table as well, as referees to the great debate, so Democrats should come armed with reams of figures from the C.B.O. and defy Republicans to explain them. The C.B.O. is seen as neutral, and if Republicans blatantly try to cast their figures as false, it won't help their cause at all. Facts are facts, and they're hard to deny. Just the facts, Sir or Ma'am, pesky as those facts may be to your argument.

Democrats should have these facts and figures ready to go. "Thirty-nine percent" is just the beginning. There are other equally potent facts to make the political argument, such as: 44,000 deaths each year due to lack of insurance. That's a big fact that should be used in response to the Republican's "there's no reason to rush this" perennial line of blarney. Or: 45,000,000 uninsured people in America. That's another good fact to toss around to make the Democratic case. It's an easy message to frame: Democrats care about the tens of thousands of needless deaths per year and the millions without insurance, and Republicans don't. The facts back this argument up. So use it.

When Republicans think they've got a winner of an idea, return again to the facts. Tort reform? You want tort reform? Well, the C.B.O. says that'll fix maybe two percent of the problem. We trust the C.B.O.'s figures. Two percent. So let's talk about the other ninety-eight percent of the problem after we talk about the two percent, OK?

When Republicans bring up the polls (as they are all but guaranteed to do), answer it with a naked threat. "You say the House and Senate bills aren't polling well with the American people? So you support the concept that we should write this bill to contain what polls well among the American people? Is that it? Well, then, we'll have to put the public option back in, since it consistently polls at sixty percent approval or better. Since you say you're all for giving the American people exactly what the opinion polls say they want, you'll doubtlessly support this effort, right?"

Republicans will likely gnash their teeth over the prospect of reconciliation being used to pass a Democratic bill. Luckily, the facts are on the Democrats' side on this one as well. "Since 1981, reconciliation has been used 19 times, by one count. Fourteen of those were when Republicans used it to pass things over Democratic objections. At the time, Republicans -- including a few sitting around this table today -- called reconciliation 'the normal rules of the Senate.' If Republicans continue their unprecedented and historic abuse of the filibuster and cloture -- using it hundreds of times in a single congressional session instead of the handful of times it had been used in the past, I might add -- then we simply have no choice but to use the same tactic Republicans have used over and over again. This tactic is called democracy. It is called majority rule. It has been called -- numerous times by numerous Republicans -- an 'up or down vote.' That is all we are asking for now -- an up or down vote."

This stuff isn't hard to come up with. And I've barely touched upon the oceans of data which make the case for Democrats here. All they have to do is rationally explain, over and over again if necessary, that the sky actually is blue and the sun is actually yellow. Here are the facts. Present the case to the American people, with numbers to back it up. The contrast between one side wishing to score political points and one side wishing to get something done will become crystal clear to viewers.

Actually, that's naive and optimistic. In any political debate (such as a presidential debate, for instance) the punditry leaps in the second the debate ends with a secondary debate about the debate: who "won" and who "lost." Few people will have the luxury of watching the whole hours-long meeting on C-SPAN, after all, so most people will hear about it from some "expert" who will spin it one way or the other. Three seconds of soundbite will replace four hours of meeting, with the key question "which three seconds?" perhaps determining how the public ultimately views the event.

But that is the nature of such things in the political world. That is the risk that both Democrats and Republicans run by attending the meeting in the first place. But instead of scoring points on the campaign trail, this debate will likely influence the outcome of President Obama's major legislative goal for the past year, and perhaps set the stage for the entire rest of his presidency, as well. His leadership skills are on the line here, in a very tangible way.

Of course, the best outcome for Barack Obama would be Democrats rationally trying to discuss solutions, and Republicans coming off as a youngster who was allowed at the Thanksgiving "adults" table a few years too early (who just can't resist shouting at inappropriate moments and tossing his food at his sister when he thinks no one is looking). That's the best-case scenario, in other words.

Democrats can help set this metaphorical table. And they can do it best by stating the facts. Over and over again, if need be. If they can manage to present their case as a problem which they intend to solve, and allow Republicans to present their case that all they care about is politics and the bottom line of giant corporations, then Democrats will score a political relations victory tomorrow.

All of them -- led by the cool, calm, and collected Obama himself -- need to channel a little Joe Friday tomorrow. Just the facts, Ma'am.

 

Chris Weigant blogs at:
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