Health-care law supporters tap Democratic strategist to defend it

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 8, 2011; A04

Supporters of the new health-care law have tapped a top Democratic strategist to help defend it against Republican criticism as they settle in for what many expect will be a protracted battle to shape the public's view of the law through the 2012 elections and beyond.

"There's a growing recognition that with respect to this big health-care reform legislation there's no such thing as a final victory or a final defeat," said Ron Pollack, executive director of the consumer lobby Families USA, one of the groups behind the effort. "The Republicans are intent on making this a multi-year effort and those of us who strongly support the legislation must meet that challenge. . . . We feel we've got to come together in a much more systematic fashion."

The initiative is being headed by Paul Tewes, a political consultant who directed field operations in key states for President Obama's campaign.

Two other Democratic campaign veterans, Tanya Bjork and David Di Martino, have joined the team, according to sources involved with the planning. They expect to open an office in Washington within the next few weeks; it will have about 10 staffers pulled from the dozen or so advocacy groups that make up the coalition.

Organizers declined to say how the project will be funded. And while they said they will operate independently of the White House and Democrats in Congress, they have yet to determine how much they will be in communication with them.

While the campaign is largely centered on preventing further Republican gains at the polls in 2012, there is also another audience: the justices of the Supreme Court, who are widely expected to weigh in on at least one of 20 pending lawsuits contesting the law's constitutionality by the spring of 2012.

"Judges happen to be human beings," Pollack said. "Even if they say otherwise, how the public views the issues that are in front of them impacts them."

Other groups involved include Health Care for America Now, the Health Information Center, the Center for American Progress and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

The endeavor comes as months of attacks and counter-attacks from both sides have been remarkably unsuccessful at moving public opinion.

Since the law's adoption last March, groups opposed to it have spent about $100 million on television ads and other efforts to defeat it.

Officials in 28 states - all but one of them a Republican - have joined the legal challenges against the law. They already have netted two rulings by federal district court judges invalidating all or part of the statute. (Two other judges have upheld it.)

Republicans also made a repeal vote their first order of business on taking control of the House of Representatives last month. They now are holding committee hearings virtually every week to lambast particular aspects of the law.

Meanwhile, after what some supporters complain was a lackluster start, Democrats have come out swinging, too.

During the debate over repeal in the House, Democratic representatives were armed with detailed statistics listing the numbers of their constituents who stood to gain from the law's most popular provisions, as well as real-life examples of people already benefitting - young adults able to stay on their parents' plans up to age 26; seniors receiving checks to cover gaps in their prescription drug coverage, and small-business owners applying for tax credits to cover their workers.

The White House has helped orchestrate dozens of news conferences with local and national media outlets, op-ed submissions and other activities for cabinet members, Democratic governors and even city mayors.

Every Republican congressional hearing is met with an onslaught of countervailing e-mails and blog posts by people who favor the law - law professors to argue for its constitutionality and heads of business, including Costco chief executive Jim Sinegal, to argue that it helps the economy.

But polls show the public mood has remained virtually unchanged - with Americans evenly split between those who favor the law and those who oppose it.

Certain provisions, such as the one that prohibits insurers from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions, remain wildly popular. Others, such as the requirement that virtually all Americans obtain health insurance or pay a penalty, are widely reviled.

And when asked whether they prefer repealing the law in its entirety or just parts of it, support for all-out repeal slips to less than 1 in 5.

Both sides claim to find comfort in that last number.

"The overwhelming majority of people want to give the law a chance to work rather than repeal it and start over," a senior administration official said. "That's a critical point that opponents of the law seem to have missed."

Republicans counter that their aim is not merely to repeal the law but ultimately to replace it with something else. Therefore, they say, their actions are perfectly aligned with American sentiment.

Robert Blendon, a polling analyst with the Harvard School of Public Health, argues that these nuances are largely irrelevant. What matters most, he said, is the public's overall view.

"There are things people would want to keep and things they would not. But at the end of the day, that is not the choice voters are going to be given in the 2012 elections," he said. "They are going to be asked, 'Overall, is it better to get rid of this law or keep it?' "

When it comes to this up-or-down choice, Blendon added, the law's slow rollout ensures that Democrats and the president will have a dificult time gaining additional supporters any time soon.

The law's most sweeping provisions do not go into effect until 2014 - including the insurance mandate, curbs on Medicare spending, the expansion of Medicaid and the establishment of state marketplaces through which many will be able to buy private insurance with government subsidies.

Until then, Blendon said, it doesn't matter how many people benefit from the law's early, and generally most-popular, features. Nor does it matter how aggressively advocates publicize these gains.

"People who are worried about this bill are worried about its aggregate impact - Will it cost too much? Will it add to the deficit? Will it increase taxes?" he said. "You just can't answer their doubts until the overall plan goes into effect."

© 2011 The Washington Post Company