Democrats may want to pivot from their bruising, yet ultimately victorious, health care debate to the economy and jobs, but they also are faced with the arduous task of making sure their constituents understand exactly what it is they already did.
“I think it’s critical we do two things,” Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said last week. “One is beginning the hard work of planning for successful implementation, but simultaneously talk how this is going to benefit millions of Americans, every American really. And that has to begin now and that has to be thorough, and the president’s already started it, so that’s good.”
Indeed, President Barack Obama has begun what White House officials have said is a barnstorming effort to sell the merits of the new law, but House and Senate Democrats will be making their own efforts to sell the health care overhaul to hometown crowds over the recess.
“This recess is about bringing the message home,” one Senate Democratic leadership aide said.
Congressional leaders have told Members to highlight provisions that take effect this year, such as tax credits for small businesses that offer health insurance, prohibitions on denying coverage to children with pre-existing conditions and the start of the effort to close the Medicare prescription drug “doughnut hole,” among other things.
“Talking about provisions that don’t kick in until 2014 does not help us in 2010,” the leadership aide said. More controversial parts of the law, such as an individual mandate for insurance coverage and the creation of health insurance exchanges, do not take effect for several years.
“We’re advising them to lean into the vote,” said Doug Thornell, a spokesman for Assistant to the Speaker Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). “Public opinion is turning on the overall bill, and the immediate benefits have always been popular. It’s important they identify those benefits to their constituents and put a human face on it.”
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) is planning on holding a major event in Columbus on Thursday, his office said. Brown plans to invite his Ohio House colleagues who supported the bill to the rally-style event, as well as more than 140 constituents whose health care stories Brown shared on the Senate floor over the past year.
However, Democrats have already been warned by Capitol Police that they should be more vigilant over the recess given the threats of death and violence from conservative tea party protesters and their supporters.
So while Members will not necessarily be hiding out or avoiding all public events, many may try to keep a relatively low profile.
“Things got a little ugly, and I think people are not looking to be so high profile that it makes someone who’s not stable come out of the woodwork,” another Senate Democratic aide said. And a senior House aide said Democrats in the lower chamber will be looking to engage people “in more controlled environments” — like meeting with specific groups of health care providers or conducting tele-townhalls, which helped lawmakers impose some order back in August after the raucous sessions that opened the month.
Plus, the Senate Democratic leadership aide said Democrats have been in touch with progressive interest groups “to make sure our Members have the support they need.” That could include hosting rallies or simply showing up to public events to make sure Democrats are not overrun by tea party protesters.
Besides press events and rallies, Members are also trying to get the message out in other ways. For example, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin’s (D-Ill.) office is developing a Web site to answer many of his constituents’ most frequently asked questions about how the law will affect them.
Of course, the ability of the party to “change the narrative” on health care was one of the primary arguments that Democratic leaders in both chambers used to persuade Members to take the final leap in passing health care reform in an increasingly hostile political environment.
Democrats have blamed the low approval numbers for their health care effort on the success of GOP attacks and what Democrats say is misinformation about the new law. Part of the reason that Democrats say they lost the public relations battle is because of the divide between their own liberals and centrists over how to craft the legislation and the months that it took in 2009 and the beginning of 2010 to finally produce a cohesive package.
“We lost the contest of branding because we didn’t have a product to brand early on and others took advantage of their moment outside of Washington to successfully label something other than it was,” said Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who led the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee consideration of the bill last summer in the absence of then-Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).
Reed agreed, saying, “There’s more specifics now. It’s not two competing versions. It’s not, you know, things that are fanciful. It’s the law and we have to talk about it.”
After a year of showing little progress in combating GOP attacks, it appears that the time is ripe for Democrats to at least try to salvage their sagging political fortunes in advance of November’s midterm election.
On Friday, Google spokesman Galen Panger said a study of the search engine’s traffic shows that searches on the health care bill since its final passage last week are 10 times higher than at any time in the yearlong debate.
“If there is a lesson here, it is that this is the key moment to frame the bill because people are paying attention,” said Panger, who added that liberal and conservative advocacy groups have responded with “messages ranging from Thank You Congress’ to Fire Nancy Pelosi.’ And Obama is asking voters to Co-Sign Historic Reform.'”
Tory Newmyer contributed to this report.