Experts say lawmakers can hear health ralli
One question stands out about health care reform rallies, whether pro or con:
Who, if anyone, is listening?
Larry Baas, a Valparaiso University professor and chairman of the Department of Political Science, said the public rallies to date seem to have swayed opinion.
"There's no doubt that something's going on out there. Public support for government involvement in health care has dropped," Baas said. "Will these rallies have an impact? There is a tendency for the media to cover the negative and that conveys that there's a swelling of support for the opposition. Misinformation is given legitimacy. It has put Obama on the defensive. It's easy to scare people on such a personal and complex issue as health care."
Ed Howard, executive vice president of the Alliance for Health Reform, a Washington-based non-partisan policy education group, said there is a different dynamic at play now. "In 1994 it was pretty clear the Clinton plan would not pass," Howard said. "But Obama has avoided some of Clinton's mistakes. This plan was developed by Congress, not by the president in secret. And Congress is much more invested in this and that helps them to build momentum. This lady ain't dead yet."
Howard said it isn't just who shouts louder at the rallies, though he admits people are hearing the shouting. "If nothing else, these rallies make congressmen read the bill, even though this is more Astroturf lobbying versus grass-roots lobbying."
Carroll Doherty, assistant director of the Washington-based Pew Research Group, said there has been little backlash against the protests attacking health care reform. "The opponents have attracted attention. Are they moving the needle? I think other things are more decisive, such as how concerned people are about the costs. This is a complex and confusing issue for Americans."
Doherty said that a July Pew poll found 39 percent favored health care reform, while 44 percent opposed it. In a Sept. 2 poll that figure changed only slightly, to 38 percent supporting reform and 46 percent opposing it.
"We don't see this greatly affecting overall public opinion," Doherty said, except in one area. "The Tea Party protests bolstered the very strong opposition, which is much more intense than the support for reform."
Marie Eisenstein, assistant professor of political science at IUN, said Congress is paying attention to the rallies.
"Of course they're listening," Eisenstein said. "These public rallies do work. Whoever ends up winning that debate comes down to who will have swayed the majority of public opinion in their favor. Between 10 percent and 20 percent of the population in the middle are willing to listen and House members are paying particular attention because they care about being re-elected."
Richard Rupp, interim head of the History and Political Science Department at Purdue University Calumet, said the pro and con health care reform rallies are a good thing for democracy.
"We are in the midst of the most intense national debate on health care public policy in many, many years and it's healthy for citizens to be engaged in attending events focusing on public policy questions," Rupp said. "But this particular public policy question is complicated, nuanced and terribly important and I hope that rather than shouting at one another we would be striving to be more sober and truly understand the issues rather than simply name call and try to undermine various proposals out there without trying to understand them."
Sam Flint, assistant professor of public affairs at Indiana University Northwest, said the congressional-sponsored health care reform events "were supposed to educate us about health reform and instead educated us on politics. The folks opposed to health reform clobbered the pro health reform forces in August, and Obama needs to return to the drawing boards. This was such a well-orchestrated campaign of misinformation that first went to the elderly, then to veterans and now women to scare them," Flint said.
He said GOP positions have hardened and even moderates are taking a firmer line against reform. "They believe that if they can stop health reform, they can stop Obama and take back the House. Morale is high. This is becoming a titanic battle and the (Tea Party members) are winning and changing more minds than the progressives who want reform."
But Chris Jennings, former senior health policy adviser to President Bill Clinton and founder of Jennings Policy Strategy Team, said today's political and policy climate are different.
"I'm optimistic that Obama can reclaim momentum and here's why. Democrats have had a few hard months with some unfortunate bumps in the road. The good news is that they have three fundamentals going for them that we didn't have in 1993-1994 that will sustain them and get them back on track. They are more unified. Most of the health care special interests fear not having reform more than reform itself, and none want to be blamed as the reason reform efforts failed. And Obama let Congress jump-start the process, so they have a greater stake in it."