Even before Senate Republicans released their Obamacare repeal plan last week, a call went out from liberal activists: Head to the airport and greet departing senators with a furious protest.
About five dozen demonstrators showed up at Reagan National Airport, chanting loudly and hoisting signs that read “Don’t Take Away Our Health Care” and “Resist.” Organizers hailed the turnout given the short notice, but the contrast with the thousands of people who flocked to the last airport protests — against President Donald Trump’s travel ban — was inescapable.
And compared with the tea party fervor aimed at Democrats when they worked to pass Obamacare seven years ago, this year’s liberal defense of the law hasn’t mustered the same energy to seize, and stay in command of, the nation’s attention.
For weeks now, liberal activists and Democratic senators have struggled to capture the public’s focus in their campaign to halt Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s momentum to repeal Obamacare. Now that the GOP bill is public, its expected coverage losses are likely to make it as deeply unpopular as the House’s plan — yet the left is facing a perilously narrow window to pick off wavering Republican senators and sink the bill before this week’s vote.
That messaging crisis is not for lack of trying. But progressives have been stymied by Republicans’ strategy of keeping the bill behind closed doors as well as a crowded media landscape fixated more on Trump’s tweets and Russia scandal than on the intricacies of Medicaid spending. And then there’s money: Democrats have been vastly outspent by Republicans in ad wars over Obamacare repeal.
Even if they break through the clutter this week by flooding the GOP with public anger, they may be too late to save Obamacare.
“What we want is for this to be in the headlines, on the front page of newspapers every morning, and it hasn’t been because it’s been such a secretive process,” Angel Padilla, policy director of the liberal group Indivisible, said in an interview.
Even after 43 disability-rights activists, including many in wheelchairs, got dragged out and arrested outside McConnell’s office Thursday, Padilla said he saw “most of the evening news programs still talking about tapes” of former FBI Director James Comey that Trump initially suggested existed before saying they don’t.
“It’s been really frustrating.”
Now, Democrats haven’t been entirely unsuccessful.
Raucous town hall meetings organized by Indivisible and other groups earlier this year spooked GOP lawmakers and garnered significant media coverage. And only 16 percent of the public now thinks the House-passed measure, which largely mirrors the Senate bill, is a good idea, according to last week’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll — strong evidence that Democratic attacks are resonating. Obamacare itself is more popular than ever.
"The numbers for the Republican health care bill are lower than I remember for the [Affordable Care Act]," said David Axelrod, a former top adviser to President Barack Obama. "The one element that is missing is the significant ad spending we saw on the anti-ACA campaign."
The Democratic group Save My Care and AARP have escalated their advertising push in defense of Obamacare in recent days, but it is not likely to match opponents’ campaign. American Action Network, a nonprofit with ties to House Speaker Paul Ryan, spent more than $8 million on TV and radio advertising during House debate on repeal; a pair of progressive groups spent less than $2 million by that point.
Another former top Obama adviser, Anita Dunn, disputed the notion that liberals are having more trouble this year than the tea party did in 2009 and 2010, arguing the GOP’s plan is now polling poorly and that Republicans are “hiding from their constituents” by holding fewer town halls and rushing to pass the bill.
“But there are some significant differences — President Obama made ACA his focal point and there were no scandal stories (like Russia) competing in the space,” emailed Dunn, who served as White House communications director at the start of the Affordable Care Act debate. “The Democrats ran an open and public process, with hearings, witnesses, and many opportunities for the other side to organize around.”
And while Trump-era marches have drawn tens of thousands into the streets to call for action against climate change, support immigrants and demand the president’s tax returns, none have focused on opposing Obamacare repeal. In contrast, thousands of tea party activists descended on the Capitol to protest final passage of the health care law in March 2010. Liberals may try something similar, with activists spreading the word on Twitter about forming "a massive human chain" at the Capitol on Wednesday, the day before a possible Senate vote.
Senate Democrats are powerless to stop the bill on their own, because Republicans are using procedural maneuvers to circumvent a filibuster. But they have tried a variety of tactics lately to try to bring public pressure to bear on the GOP.
Last week, they launched a procedural blockade to spotlight Republicans’ avoidance of hearings on their repeal bill. They held a talk-a-thon that stretched until midnight, with a series of senators speaking on the floor. A trio of Democratic senators, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Brian Schatz of Hawaii, jumped in a cab and recorded their trip to the Congressional Budget Office to try to unearth the proposal.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) took the save-Obamacare show on the road over the weekend, drawing more than 1,000 people to the first of three rallies against repeal that he and MoveOn.org held in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.
Democrats have also sought to elevate the personal stories of those threatened by the bill, which would cost millions of low-income Americans their health insurance and gut key consumer protections, all while slashing taxes for the wealthy and insurers. They held numerous news conferences with constituents who would be harmed by the bill and promoted a push on social media with the hashtag #AmericaSpeaksOut.
But the left has been unable to fuel a viral phrase, like conservatives’ false “death panel” charges, or to find a single pro-Obamacare face to rise from the pack and take aim at Trump — much as Gold Star father Khizr Khan or former Miss Universe Alicia Machado did during last year’s presidential campaign.
“The thing that really elevates someone’s story from merely provoking empathy to becoming iconic is when Republicans or the right-wing media attack a grass-roots hero,” said MoveOn Washington director Ben Wikler.
During the House’s Obamacare repeal debate, it appeared briefly that late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel might take the mantle after an emotional speech about his infant son, who had a health crisis, went viral. But the House, after serious struggles, passed its bill. And then the debate went quiet in public, particularly as Republicans sidestepped recess-week town halls following earlier tense confrontations with constituents.
Sen. Tom Carper admitted in an interview that he isn’t sure whether Democratic messaging has broken through yet. But the Delaware Democrat argued that his party has successfully branded the GOP repeal bill with at least one label: secret.
“The press doesn’t know what’s going on. We don’t know what’s going on. Some of the Republicans don’t know what’s going on,” Carper said. “That’s got to be disconcerting to average, normal people who have misgivings about this place anyway.”
Hammering the Senate GOP’s Obamacare repeal as too radioactive to draft in public may prove liberals’ most compelling tactic against a bill that could see a vote less than one week after its release and as changes remain under consideration.
"If I’m a vulnerable Republican senator, I’m breathing a sigh of relief that McConnell took active measures to minimize the news coverage, but I’m panicked what signal that secrecy sent to voters,” said Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson, a veteran of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the original Obamacare battle.
“It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in health policy for voters to figure out he kept it secret because it would be bad for them, and his plotting has made an unpopular bill even more reviled," said Ferguson, who is now working with several groups opposed to repeal.
Ultimately, progressives might find one thing in common with the Obama-era tea party: Both might fall short on Capitol Hill, only to take revenge at the polls.
For all its energy on the ground at the time, the right failed to stop the health care law from being passed.
With complete control of Washington and a commitment to their policy goals, Democrats were willing to plow ahead regardless of the political ramifications. Republicans now find themselves in a similar position.
A GOP wave toppled House Democrats from power in 2010, and Democrats are predicting that Republicans will suffer in 2018 if their bill becomes law.
“Unlike the ACA, which grew more popular as its effects and benefits kicked in, [repeal] will become even more unpopular as the law’s effects of people losing health care and paying more for less coverage become a reality,” Dunn said.
House Republicans may be nervous, but Senate Republicans face a highly favorable electoral map next year, potentially easing most GOP senators’ fears of backing the controversial proposal.
Democrats, meanwhile, are expressing optimism that they can marshal the massive public pushback needed to derail the legislation this week.
“I think people are starting to get it,” Murphy told POLITICO soon after the GOP bill emerged. “They realize that this is not theoretical anymore. This is something terrible about to happen to them.”
From the sidelines of the airport protest, Working Families Party organizer Zach Weinstein agreed. "Now it seems like we’re all on the same page — on the grass-roots side, on the inside," he said. "Hopefully we can stop this thing once and for all."