They've Created A Monster

by dday

Tom Daschle came right out today and said that you can't fix the economy without fixing the health care crisis. Interestingly, health care is one of the only sectors in today's washout of a jobs report where hiring went up. The demand is there, and making the system more equitable, accessible and affordable would not only help every American cope with their bills and move from job to job, but would also make American business more competitive. It's very good that the connection between health care and the broader economy is being made.

"There is no question that the economic health of this country is directly related to our ability to reform our health-care system," Daschle said.

Daschle cited the fact that high health care costs are preventing U.S. businesses from staying competitive and creating jobs. "That's what makes this so urgent and so much a part of the economic recovery process," Daschle said. "I believe that for the first time in American history, health-care reform will be done."

Almost as important as making health care a priority is how Daschle and the transition team is laying the groundwork for getting it done, connecting with the grassroots to push the policy from the bottom up.

Former senator Thomas A. Daschle, Obama's point person on health care, launched an effort to create political momentum yesterday in a conference call with 1,000 invited supporters culled from 10,000 who had expressed interest in health issues, promising it would be the first of many opportunities for Americans to weigh in.

The health-care mobilization taking shape before Obama even takes office will include online videos, blogs and e-mail alerts as well as traditional public forums. Already, several thousand people have posted comments on health on the Obama transition Web site [...]

It is the first attempt by the Obama team to harness its vast and sophisticated grass-roots network to shape public policy. Although the president-elect is a long way from crafting actual legislation, he promised during the campaign to make the twin challenge of controlling health-care costs and expanding coverage a top priority in his first term.

This really looks like they're requesting policy ideas from citizens to work into their overall framework, although you never can tell. But by allowing people to invest in the policy, it certainly gives momentum to any effort to get it through Congress. The transition team is soliciting ideas through online comments and community forums. And health care came up quite a bit in the transition team's meeting with community organizers and activists yesterday. Plus, they're providing open access to all meetings, documents, and position papers from various groups, as well as offering the ability to post comments about them.

The most important thing is that the emphasis on building a grassroots movement on health care is unmatched by any other issue. It's clear they want to make a go at this early in the first term, with the help of their supporters.

And that provides an opportunity. There's been a lot of hand-wringing in the traditional media over "what is Obama going to do with his email list," but I think that has it a bit backward. It's really "what is the list going to do with Obama." Already in California I'm seeing a lot of ideas exchanged, ad hoc groups formed, meetings set up, and initiatives set, both on national and local issues. In essence, Obama doesn't have total control over "harnessing" the grassroots network from the campaign; the grassroots will make the determination about what they want to work on and how. Marshall Ganz, who kind of pioneered Obama's community organizing in the campaign and whose roots in community activism go back to Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, had this to say about it:

"Here we have a guy who won who was really propelled into office--I don't want to say that--supported through the creation of a movement. And so, now what? Can he lead it from the presidency? Probably not. There are lots of good reasons why that would be problematic. Or why that would quickly turn into emails from Barack saying 'Please send a letter to X.' Which is just the old form of what we were talking about before, politics as marketing. It could become a network of some kind, it could become an organization. If it became an organization, something like Campaign for a New America, we have to look at questions of finance and governance, as to how to enable something like that to work. But there's a foundation out there that didn't exist before, and it's not going to go away. My colleague Bob Putnam talks about social capital, there's a kind of civic capital that's been created here. It's not going to disappear."

I then asked him where all that social knowledge embedded in the network was going to go--the 23,000 Camp Obama organizers, the super-volunteers, the awareness of all the nodes at the local level. What would it be like to govern with this capacity?

Ganz replied, "I agree. That's what's being debated right now. There's a team of organizers in Chicago right now who are working on this question. The field organizers and a lot of the people who built this thing--not all of them want to go off and have jobs in Washington. A lot of them are committed to an organizing vision here and they fought for it throughout the campaign. That's one reason the campaign adopted much more of an organizing approach than it was inclined to at the beginning....New Hampshire was one of the worst marketing operations that we've seen. And so he lost, and we learned something from that. It was as stereotypically a marketing operation as South Carolina was an organizing operation, or Iowa. The caucuses are interesting because even if you don't believe in organizing, you have to, otherwise you're screwed. You arrive at a lot of organizing elements tactically, not because you necessarily want to create democratic organization." [...]

"People are all so used to thinking, a lot of groups and organizations are sort of saying, 'who's going to get the list? who's going to get the list? They sort of think of 1.5 million names, who's going to get it? You can transfer a list, but you can't transfer people that way. That's what's out there, is people. Over the next few weeks, months, there's going to be some working thru this. It's very important what Obama decides. Whether to try to support some kind of organized effort, that's rooted in the campaign, or not."

I think the way the transition team has approached health care offers an opportunity for grassroots types to "make them do it." Because coming up with something called "reform" would be a waste. Heck, the insurance industry lobby has a reform proposal (their big idea is for the government to subsidize health care to make it affordable while they get to charge the same price for the same kind of crappy care! Brilliant!). Progressives have an opportunity to be in on the conversation for what shape the actual reform will take, and since the Obama Administration is tipping their hand as to how fundamental to success the grasroots will be, progressives have non-trivial leverage over that form. There is a calculation that something as big as reforming the health care industry cannot get done without individuals all over the country playing a part. That process is something new and I would imagine pretty flexible. It's not an actual seat at the table, but it's pretty darn close.

There's a potential to become an active participant in how these issues play out instead of the passive role of commenting and harrumphing after the fact. And yes, the same tools and techniques can be applied when Obama does something many of us don't like. This is going to be a powerful force in the years to come, and it will most certainly not be an adjunct of the President. I don't think it can be fully understood where it will go just yet, but the potential is exciting.