Over the past few weeks I’ve been inundated on social media and e-mail by lots of groups asking me to call my local representative in Congress to vote against the Trump attempt to repeal Obamacare. I did my bit; I had a very nice albeit brief chat with whom I assume was an intern who recorded my concerns (and noted my ZIP code). I also responded to various requests for letters and e-mails with my usual pithiness, and of course there was this effort in the blogosphere. Throughout it all I was pretty sure that while we’d make a strong effort, it would be for naught. I was, like everyone, stunned when the bill failed to even get a vote in the GOP-controlled House.
So how did we do it? Dave Weigel at the Washington Post looks at what killed it.
On Friday afternoon, as congressional Democrats learned that the GOP had essentially given up on repealing the Affordable Care Act, none of them took the credit. They had never really cohered around an anti-AHCA message. (As recently as Wednesday, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi was still using the phrase “make America sick again,” which most Democrats had abandoned.) They’d been sidelined legislatively, as Republicans tried to pass a bill on party lines. They’d never called supporters to the Capitol for a show of force, as Republicans had done, several times, during the 2009-2010 fight to pass the Affordable Care Act.
Instead, Democrats watched as a roiling, well-organized “resistance” bombarded Republicans with calls and filled their town hall meetings with skeptics. The Indivisible coalition, founded after the 2016 election by former congressional aides who knew how to lobby their old bosses, was the newest and flashiest. But it was joined by MoveOn, which reported 40,000 calls to congressional offices from its members; by Planned Parenthood, directly under the AHCA’s gun; by the Democratic National Committee, fresh off a divisive leadership race; and by the AARP, which branded the bill as an “age tax” before Democrats had come up with a counterattack.
Congressional Democrats did prime the pump. After their surprise 2016 defeat, they made Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) the outreach director of the Senate caucus. Sanders’s first project was “Our First Stand,” a series of rallies around the country, organized by local Democrats and following a simple format. Elected officials would speak; they would then pass the microphone to constituents who had positive stories to tell about the ACA.
The turnout for the rallies exceeded expectations, though their aggregate total, over 70-odd cities, would be dwarfed by the Women’s March one week later. More importantly, they proved that there was a previously untapped well of goodwill for the ACA — which had polled negatively for seven years — and it smoothed over divisions inside the party. Days after Barack Obama had blamed “Bernie Sanders supporters” for undermining support for the ACA, Sanders was using his campaign mailing list to save the law.
“It was the town halls, and the stories, that convinced me that people might actually stop this bill,” said Tom Perriello, a former Democratic congressman now running an insurgent campaign for governor of Virginia, with his career-ending vote for the ACA front and center.
My surprise comes not from the fact that it worked — we saw what that misshapen band of misspellers that made up the Tea Party could do — but that the Democrats actually pulled it off in a way that prior to this has not been all that effective. Yes, of course we’ve seen Facebook and Twitter and e-mail blasts urging support for this or that cause, but they have always come up short on substance because, frankly, a lot of people pay lip service to the effort but when it comes to getting out the vote or the voice, it was always more Astroturf than the real thing. But this time the real stuff showed up.
Beltway groups were helping organize the opposition, and did not pretend otherwise. But they were effective because they had actual grass-roots buy-in. Elizabeth Juviler co-founded an Indivisible group in the district of Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.). “He’d never taken a position against the party,” Juviler said in an interview. “By all accounts, he’s an affable person, but he wasn’t accessible.”
The group, NJ11th for Change, birddogged the Republican congressman with two tactics. First, it held mock town hall events in all four of the counties he represented. “Thousands” of people showed, according to Juviler; all were informed of how to call his office. When the health-care bill was dropped, Frelinghuysen was besieged with calls. And on Friday, he announced that he would oppose AHCA. According to Joe Dinkin, a spokesman for the Working Families Party, there were dozens of stories like that.
“For the first time in a long time, a pretty sizable number of Republicans were more scared of grass-roots energy of the left than of primaries on the right,” said Dinkin.
It also didn’t hurt that a number of Republicans were against the bill not because they loved Obamacare but because they didn’t think the Trump/Ryan bill went far enough; there wasn’t a provision in it for pushing Granny off the end of the dock to reduce the cost of healthcare. Be that as it may; the bill died and now Trump has moved on to some other squirrel to chase.
The only downside is that we’re all going to be getting tons of e-mails from the DCCC and the state parties to send in money before midnight tonight to keep on fighting. It’s a small annoyance to pay for a very big win.