- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Democrats beware! If you’re not fully supporting President Obama’s health care overhaul, liberal advocacy groups have you in their sights.

As the August congressional recess looms and the final details of the health care plan take shape, the groups have unleashed a series of hard-hitting attack ads against Democrats while mostly ignoring Republicans.

Change Congress is raising money to go after Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat, using one of her own constituents to ask, “Will Landrieu sell out Louisiana?”

“Our pressure campaign targeting Landrieu has great momentum, but so far, her public position has not moved. So we have a choice: Walk away from the fight or escalate the pressure? For us, the choice is easy,” the group told supporters.

The new ad stars Karen Gadbois, an uninsured Louisiana resident and breast-cancer survivor who says a public option would save her family from a medical emergency. She’s well-known in the community for exposing post-Hurricane Katrina corruption.

“For me, this issue is personal. So when I see Mary Landrieu take $1.6 million from health and insurance companies and then oppose the public option for my daughter and me, I have to ask: Whose side are you on?” she says, looking straight into the camera with scenes of vacant New Orleans homes behind her on the screen.

The most contentious sticking point concerns the public option Mr. Obama says he wants included in the plan — which has a more than $600 billion price tag.

Republicans call a public option a deal breaker, while many conservative Democrats are backing away from the idea — favored by liberals — for fear it would harm private insurance companies.

Landrieu spokesman Aaron Saunders declined to comment on the ads but said his boss is reviewing all the proposals on the table. Mr. Saunders said Ms. Landrieu is open to compromise but “supports a predominantly private system that features a federal backup plan that serves as a safety net” and added that she “does not believe that health care reform starts with a public option.”

He also noted that since the ads have started, the majority of calls to her office have been in opposition to a public option, not in favor of one.

Advocacy groups such as MoveOn.org and Democracy for America are going after those Democrats, and Mr. Obama is stuck in the middle.

When asked by The Washington Times about the ads last week, White House Press Secretary Robert L. Gibbs said the president doesn’t have “much to say” about the groups’ efforts.

A few days later, the White House was forced to intervene, and Mr. Obama reportedly told members of Congress on a conference call that the ads aren’t helpful.

“The president had the right tone, telling people this has to be more about the bigger challenge of continuing to make the case for why health care reform is needed,” said Sen. Mark Warner, a freshman Democrat from Virginia.

Mr. Warner told The Times he has heard from liberal groups that strongly want a public option and opponents who call that government-run health care, though he hasn’t been targeted specifically yet because he hasn’t staked out a firm position on that element of the proposal.

He said he doesn’t think the ads against conservative Democrats were helping.

“I’m not sure that’s going to switch anybody’s vote,” he said.

But in at least one case, the targeted campaigns seem to be working — MoveOn scrapped plans to attack freshman Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina when she reversed her position and now says she will back the bill that includes a public option.

MoveOn Executive Director Justin Ruben went as far as thanking Ms. Hagan, saying the group’s members in North Carolina and elsewhere will keep pushing for the public option.

But Change Congress hasn’t relented in its campaign against Ms. Landrieu and found success in targeting Sen. Ben Nelson, a conservative Democrat from Nebraska, with thousands of dollars in direct mail to the state’s residents.

Democrats also are using intensely personal stories to sell the plan, putting everyday people in front of the camera to talk about their experience losing health insurance.

“My son has cerebral palsy and epilepsy. He’s four,” one woman says in the Organizing for America spot. She adds, “It’s time for health care reform.”

Mr. Warner said the public option argument is semantical and lawmakers and advocacy groups should be more focused on costs and cutting the deficit.

He predicted the president will sign a bill in the fall but it might not be perfect the first time around.

“Whatever bill is passed, chances are there is going to be a need to come back and take a look at it and fix it,” Mr. Warner said. “You’re not going to get this 100 percent right the first time out of the chute, but the option of doing nothing … just isn’t an option.”

Mr. Warner said he’s still closely examining the bill as it takes shape on Capitol Hill, and he noted his interest in seeing a mixed public and private plan that encourages competition on a level playing field. Some larger employers such as Safeway and Delta are even crafting their own benefit plans, he said.

He said many Republicans are “trying to frighten people” that the Obama plan forces people to change their current health care plan even though it actually gives them an option to switch or keep plans they like.

• Christina Bellantoni can be reached at 125725@example.com.

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