CHICAGO — This is “the all-hands-on-deck moment of the health-care fight,” MoveOn.org’s Washington director, Ben Wikler, told the 26,373 listeners who tuned into the organization’s Sunday night strategy call, a weekly event that has drawn vast audiences of progressives seeking solidarity and guidance. “We have a plan.”
Determined to defeat the fast-paced Republican overhaul of the Affordable Care Act, Wikler called for protests Thursday and Friday at the offices of nine GOP senators and 23 House members. He said demonstrators should bring props: crutches, stretchers, slings.
“Suddenly we’re in this turbo mode, this race where they’re going to try to torpedo health care for millions of people and we have three weeks to stop them,” Wikler said. “This is a full-on health-care emergency. But we actually have, I think, a really good shot at stopping these guys.”
The Obamacare rewrite by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and the Trump administration is presenting progressive organizations with a clear target and a powerful challenge as they labor to channel the diffuse grass-roots opposition to President Trump’s agenda. Beating back the effort became more urgent on Monday after the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated the GOP proposal would lower the number of Americans with health insurance by 24 million while reducing the federal deficit $337 billion by 2026.
The energy of the anti-Trump forces since Jan. 20 has surprised even his most fervent opponents. The question is whether Democrats can turn activism into policy victories and success at the polls. Defeating the GOP proposal is shaping up as a defining test, with significant implications for policy and politics alike.
“Advocacy organizations have been racing to catch up with the unprecedented grass-roots energy,” said Anna Galland, executive director of MoveOn.org, whose history stretches to battles against the Iraq War and President Bill Clinton’s impeachment. “We just need to present clear, strategic actions that can make a difference. That’s our end of the bargain.”
MoveOn.org and a series of partners, including Indivisible and the Working Families Party, have held six Sunday night conference calls for supporters since Trump’s inauguration. On the hurriedly arranged first call, the day after the Jan. 21 Women’s March, MoveOn.org organizer Vicki Kaplan hoped to get 1,000 participants. It drew more than 59,000. The fourth call, directing strategy for protests during the congressional recess, drew 46,000.
Sunday’s session was a mix of policy tutorials and calls to action, ending with a few questions from participants and a stress-reducing breathing exercise — practice for “sustaining ourselves over the next four years,” explained Amanda Johnson of the Working Families Party.
The heart of the call was a pitch to defend the ACA. The peril, framed by Wikler, is the prospective loss of health insurance for millions of people. He decried “Trumpcare” as a “terrible, terrible, terrible plan” and said the GOP push to approve a bill by the end of March is a Hail Mary pass.
“Why are they doing all these terrible things? Like with so much Republican policy, there’s a simple explanation: tax cuts for the rich,” Wikler said. “So the very rich get very richer and 15 million people can’t afford their health insurance. That is the core of Trumpcare.”
The search for a compelling message is an essential component of MoveOn.org’s effort to pressure Republicans — and to mobilize spine-stiffening support for elected Democrats. In answer to a caller who asked how to be of use in districts and states represented by Democrats, Wikler said to watch for an email about how to recruit supporters in GOP states.
He also said, however, that calls to Democrats are needed.
“It’s always good to call, even if you have great, progressive senators,” Wikler said. “I’ve been speaking to progressive senators over the last week. They’ve reported that the number of calls they’re getting to oppose the Republican health-care assault is really low. People haven’t been mobilizing around this.”
The stakes stretch beyond the health-care bill, he said, adding that defeating the Republican health law means stopping the momentum for Trump’s agenda.
Calling for protests to begin on Thursday, he identified 23 GOP House districts won by Hillary Clinton in November, along with nine Senate seats held by Republicans, from Alaska through Nevada and Arizona to Ohio, West Virginia and Maine.
Next up was Planned Parenthood’s deputy organizing director, Kelley Robinson, who noted that the Ryan bill would block Medicaid recipients from seeking care at their clinics, including Pap smears, STD screening and contraceptives.
Robinson told listeners that more than half of the organization’s clinics are in rural or underserved areas, and that 2.5 million people seek care annually.
Amaha Kassa, executive director of African Communities Together, warned of the harm the could result from Trump’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants and a sharp reduction in refugee resettlement. Asylum seekers already in the United States stand to lose their full opportunity to be heard in court if the administration speeds the pace of hearings.
A Los Angeles organizer spent 10 minutes discussing ways to remain calm and healthy during a long protest campaign. Mark-Anthony Johnson’s wellness regimen involved lots of deep breaths and loud exhales.
“Take a moment and just breathe with me,” began Johnson, who represents the group Dignity and Power Now. “Whatever’s in your body right now, whatever frustrations, excitement, joy that you’ve experienced in this call, give it a sound on the exhale.”
He encouraged listeners who might be nervous at a rally or talking with a member of Congress, to develop a strategy.
Planned for Trump’s first 100 days, the Sunday calls will continue if useful, said MoveOn’s Kaplan. “Every week has a new twist,” she said. “Part of the rhythm of these calls is to try to stay in tune with what people are feeling and needing. We are how far into the Trump administration? Not quite 50 days? It feels like forever.”