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Five Reasons the Health Care Battle Is NOT the Presidential Campaign

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Democrats and progressives are clearly rattled by how quickly the right has come out of the gate in the much-anticipated August health care battle.

Zandar, keying off Josh Marshall, explains:

Josh Marshall considers the health care town hall ambushes by the teabagger crowds and asks: "Folks can whine on endlessly about outfits like Freedom Works putting these rackets together. But if the president's plan has any public support they should be able to get supporters to these events too, right? Not to pull the Black Shirt routine but to provide some public demonstration that there's real public support for making reform a reality. ... If there is. So that's the question. Where's the other team?"


If they're waiting until after the Senate recesses on Friday, then they're ceding an entire week to the goon squads here. They were ready to go as early as this weekend and will continue to attack for the next four weeks. It's a very good question and very indicative of the problem Obama has had in the last six weeks: for the centerpiece of his administration's policy initiatives, he's sure not acting like he wants this very much.

The GOP, on the other hand, is treating this fight as what it is: an existential battle. They know that if robust health care reform passes, they are beyond toast. Democrats will run the show for a generation. They are pulling out all the stops on the attacks and the pressure. To use a crappy sports metaphor, they want the win more.

Team Obama has gotten hamstrung here in the last three days. Multiple Democrats have been jumped at appearances. The GOP telegraphed the plan well in advance. So far it's looking like the Dems don't have much of a "boots on the ground" response. I am hoping this changes and fast. The best organized grassroots political machine ever conceived rolled over the landscape last fall. Where is it now?

A major question (and source of angst) on the left is encapsulated in that last sentence, namely, where's the vaunted Obama operation and why can't it counter a ragtag group of so-called "teabaggers"? [For the record, as someone who protested the Iraq war and believes in citizen activism, I don't like using broad-brush pejorative terms for grassroots activists, even if I disagree with them politically. Two exceptions: astroturfers organized by big moneyed interests deserve all the disdain they get, and those who have a race-based anti-Obama agenda are despicable beyond words.]

Weeks ago, I cautioned that the White House was in perpetual campaign mode. Now we read that the Obama team will once again turn to the tried and true methods of the 2008 campaign.

Therein lies the problem. The August health care battle isn't the presidential campaign. Here are five reasons why:

1. The media and punditocracy have a different agenda. Back then, the favored narrative was David vs. Goliath, i.e. the unthinkable and exhilarating notion that Obama could vanquish three formidable foes: the indomitable Clinton operation, the resurgent McCain campaign, and the rightwing Swift-Boat machine. Today's narrative is also David vs. Goliath, but in reverse: can the downtrodden GOP, with the aid of insurance companies and assorted Obama detractors, deal him a gut-wrenching political blow? And can they convince enough rank and file Republicans and independents to work against their own best interests and sink the Obama agenda?

2. Obama's much-talked about online 'army' of 13 million people doesn't exist. At least not in the mobilized, battle-ready and efficient form we saw during the campaign. Between natural attrition rates and typical open (and conversion) rates, that 13 million is closer to a tenth the number who actually read the emails and far fewer who take concrete actions. The singular focus of a presidential race is absent in a multi-faceted legislative fight. Mobilizing an online 'army' on the scale of a presidential campaign is significantly more difficult in these circumstances, if not impossible.

3. Republicans and conservatives have far less to lose. When McCain-Palin were a few percentage points away from the White House, there was an incentive to be somewhat (and I emphasize 'somewhat') restrained, for fear of completely turning off the country. Now there's much more to gain politically by throwing caution to the wind and being total obstructionists. The dirty politics everyone expected during the campaign is showing up in full force now.

4. Inside baseball is less effective when you're on the inside. The media manipulation that helped win the White House, the masterful messaging, the leaks, the back-scratching, the hard-hitting conference calls with strategists and advisers while the candidate stayed above it all, the playing of one outlet and one reporter against the other, the smart turns of phrase, the snarky retorts, the outsider vs. insider kabuki, all these lose a good deal of potency when campaigning gives way to governing. Especially when bankers are running away with taxpayer money, polls are shifting and the public is hurting.

5. The netroots, excited and energized by the prospect of an Obama presidency, are disillusioned. The administration's Bush-affirming decisions on secrecy, civil liberties, torture, gay rights, etc. have alienated a good number of influential bloggers and progressive activists. These are the elite opinion-makers on the left, and their voices have been perennially marginalized (and their impact underestimated) by Democrats.

As Democrats fight for a signature issue, a serious strategic blunder has left them scrambling to catch up with their opponents. The White House should have laid out clear, unwavering objectives, a solid plan, rather than leave the health debate to meander through Congress. That vacuum has enabled the proponents of the status quo to marshal their forces.

Perhaps resorting to campaign tactics will turn the tide, I certainly hope so, but it bears acknowledging that the landscape has changed.