The historic healthcare reform bill passed by the House of Representatives last weekend still faces an uncertain fate in the Senate, but few thought the Democrats would get this far. A week that included gubernatorial defeats in Virginia and New Jersey, along with unemployment numbers clocking in at 10.2%, did not bode well for the White House and Congressional Democrats.
Whatever happens, the current success enjoyed by the Democrats merits a closer look. The political dynamics have certainly changed enough to suggest that a party once on the defense in national debates has learned a few lessons over the years. In this debate, the Democrats are controlling the language and images that drive public perception.
A few months ago, the outlook for health care seemed bleak. Heated town hall protests over the summer dominated the news as populist anger - perhaps real, perhaps manufactured - thundered over the broadcast channels, fueled the blogs, and hit key Congressional representatives in their home districts.
One can only surmise why the Republicans - after topping the charts with hit tunes like "war on terror" and "death tax" - did not draw enough momentum from what seemed to be a total debacle. Perhaps it was the sharp division in their party. Perhaps it was a bit of ill-advised complacency as victory seemed assured. The Republicans may have thought further vivisection of a nearly dead patient was unnecessary.
But credit the Democrats for some canny alterations in the very fabric of the debate.
First, they changed the language to expand their constituency. The initial policy definer was "health care reform" but, as the summer protests raged, the White House realized that that terminology focused the debate too much on those without health insurance and too little on those who are covered. So the shift was made to "health insurance reform," refocusing the purported benefits of the proposed legislation on both the haves and have-nots.
Such flexibility was subtle but decisive. In the past, Democrats like Al Gore and John Edwards have been hampered in their quests for power by too much emphasis on service to the disadvantaged. In the bigger tent needed for victory, politicians must speak to the interests of those who are doing okay while feeling they have a right to do much better.
Second, they co-opted their fiercest opposition. Here, "public option" has been lexically decisive. Rather than tout "government-run insurance," Democrats are using language that reflects the values of our society. The term "option" assuages the anxieties of free market opponents as it embraces the defining concept of choice, a synonym for "option." Cries of "socialized medicine" are still uttered but do not resound. Even the talk radio echo chamber has been ineffective.
Third, they let the Republicans cartoon themselves. Those summer protests may have offered the potential for momentum, but they got out of hand. Here the visuals reinforced the language shifts as independent and undecided voters were treated to virtual mob scenes.
Democrats continue to outflank the Right, augmenting their dominance in the language war with compelling images. Enter Bill Clinton. The former president this week injected himself into the healthcare debate, visiting Capitol Hill ostensibly to persuade Democratic Senators to pass a bill. But the trip has implications far beyond the halls of Congress.
Clinton didn't go to the Capitol to have lunch with Democratic Senators. He went to the Capitol to be seen having lunch with Democratic Senators. The optics matter far more than the lobbying mission.
We've seen this movie before. Bill Clinton didn't free two journalists held in North Korea as a result of hardnosed negotiations. He secured their release simply because he made the trip - and was seen making the trip. Clinton's powerful brand bestowed on the North Koreans a respect and seriousness that few others could have offered.
In the homestretch of the health care debate, Clinton's entrance is an attempt at a similar outcome. Democrats are presenting a contrasting "picture" of political gravitas to calm tensions and bring health care home.
Control the language and visuals of a debate and you win the debate. If two sides are evenly matched on those scores, you get to see quite a political match, a veritable "Thrilla in Manila." More often, once someone starts to win, the other guy suddenly can't stop tripping. That said, there is time to recover from a bad start, to regain momentum, as has been the case on healthcare. The adaptability of the Democrats on this issue is a model case study in recovery.
Of course, we should not altogether neglect another reason why health care reform is still politically viable. An awful lot of Americans are just sick and tired of the American health care system as it currently stands. But that's a topic for another discussion.
By Andrew Koneschusky: