Health care debate's biggest players turn up volume

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 20, 2009 

WASHINGTON — The health care scare is on. With the House of Representatives and the Senate hoping to vote on comprehensive health care bills by the end of this month, opponents and proponents of the measures are intensifying their rhetoric and saturating the media to move public support to their sides.

The Republican National Committee unveiled an ad Monday charging that the Democratic health care bills moving through the House and Senate are President Barack Obama's "risky experiment with our health care."

The Republican ad joins a softer, multimillion-dollar campaign by America's Health Insurance Plans, an insurance lobbying group that wants Congress to slow the pace of health care legislation. The group's ad urges "bipartisan reforms that Congress can build on."

Political analysts and advocates predict that the rhetoric from Obama and lawmakers combined with the ad wars from interest groups will be sharper and more superheated than the 1993 public debate over President Bill Clinton and former first lady Hillary Clinton's failed health care plan.

"It's going to be as contentious as 1993, especially if a Senate vote approaches," said Ed Gillespie, who served as counselor to President George W. Bush. "It's a personal issue and a quality of life issue. The closer we actually get to a bill, the more intense it will get."

Some of that intensity bubbled up last week on a conference call hosted by the advocacy group Conservatives for Patients Rights when Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said that halting health legislation in Congress could help put the brakes on Obama's presidency.

"If we're able to stop Obama on this it will be his Waterloo," DeMint said. "It will break him."

Obama pounced on the remark Monday, issuing a statement that rebuked DeMint without identifying him.

"This isn't about me," he said. "This isn't about politics. This is about a health care system that is breaking America's families, breaking America's businesses, and breaking America's economy."

However, Republicans — armed with Congressional Budget Office estimates that the House Democratic health care plan would cost $1 trillion over 10 years — are taking to the airwaves, the Internet and other outlets to proclaim that Obama's health care overhaul would be a small-business killer that would lead the country to financial ruin and create a government-run health care system akin to those in Canada and European nations.

"We're committed to using every means at our disposal to slowing this process down," House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence of Indiana said Monday.

Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., addressing a C-SPAN audience during a recent special orders session in the House, said: "The administration is moving as rapidly as possible towards a socialistic form of government. They're trying to control and are controlling the investment business, the banking business ... and now the health care business."

On his Fox News talk show over the weekend, former Arkansas Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee warned of what he saw as the ills of the Canadian health system and featured a Canadian woman who said she had to wait nine months to see a back specialist.

Advocates of a health care overhaul also are doling out healthy doses of scare tactics.

The Democratic National Committee announced last week that it's launching television ad with people looking directly into the camera to talk about family health care woes and urge senators, "It's time for health care reform."

The ads are slated to run in Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Nebraska and North Dakota, all of which have centrist Democratic senators.

Those who favor revamping the system also are hoping that the personal pleas of Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who's battling brain cancer, will be persuasive.

Kennedy, writing in this week's edition of Newsweek magazine, calls health care "the cause of my life" and says "now the issue has more meaning for me — and more urgency — than ever before."

Congressional Republicans intend to take their arguments against the Democratic plan to the Internet on Wednesday when House Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia and other key Republican legislators appear on the center-right-leaning Pajamas TV's health care forum.

Penni Pier, an associate communications professor at Iowa's Wartburg College, said that opponents and advocates of an overhaul were employing fear tactics because health care was a deeply personal issue that prompted a visceral response among voters in a way that few other issues did.

Pier thinks that the rhetoric and vitriol over the issue won't reach 1993 levels because this time all parties agree that the health care system needs repair.

"The Republicans acknowledge it, the Democrats acknowledge it, the American Medical Association acknowledges it," she said.

However, Darrell West, the vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a public policy research center, said the debate was just getting started, particularly on the advertising side.

"We're not seeing the level of advertising now that we saw under Clinton," he said. "Some of the big advertisers are holding fire until they see the final package."

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