Liberal Netroots "Rewarding" Public Option Supporters

Internet-based liberal grassroots groups are taking a page from traditional lobbying playbooks in order to influence the health care debate, by "rewarding" members of Congress who have committed to including a government-sponsored health insurance plan, or "public option," into health care reform legislation.

The liberal blog FireDogLake sent an e-mail to its subscribers Monday, asking them to "reward good behavior."

Yesterday, a number of congressmen sent a letter to the Obama administration saying they would only vote for a health care reform bill that includes a public option.

"For two months, we've been working hard to get members of Congress to draw a line in the sand: no public option, no health care reform," says the e-mail from FireDogLake's Jane Hamsher. "Yesterday, they did it. This is exactly the kind of spine we need to see from Congress... These 65 Democrats need to be commended for doing the right thing."

The group has set up a fundraising page for supporters to make a donation to any of the 65 members "who drew the line in the sand" with respect to the public option. So far, they have raised more than $31,000.

The e-mail and fundraising page put into action a strategy liberal Netroots leaders discussed at Netroots Nation, the annual convention that took place last weekend. Darcy Burner, executive director of, said that grassroots activists could learn a few things about influencing legislation from corporate lobbyists.

"There's a positive reinforcement loop that (lobbyists) have mastered in terms of praise and endorsements and checks that encourages the behavior they want," Burner said in a panel at the conference (watch a video of it here), "and the members, some of the members, tend to get addicted to it."

While online activists give millions of dollars to politicians, Burner said, "one of the things we have not been as good at as we could be is directly tying it to positive things they're doing -- 'Scooby snacks.'"

"Even little things like praise on local blogs," she said, "and a flurry of small contributions can have an enormous impact on how they think about their relationship to the movement and their understanding of whether we're actually there for them."

The fact that so many congressmen have said they will only support legislation with a public option is the result of the Netroots' strategy, Hamsher said during the panel discussion with Burner.

Liberal grassroots groups decided early on in the health care debate, she said, to ask Democrats in Congress not only to support the public plan, but to commit to only supporting a health care reform bill that included a strong public option.

"We suspected... that there would be deals being made with insurance companies and the hospitals... that might lead to a situation that, despite all the public support (for a public option), it might not be there," Hamsher said. "We decided to go out and start asking members of Congress, 'Will you please make this commitment?'"

The final outcome of the health care debate, she said, is "still very much in a state of flux, but I think we did win the framing war."

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