President Obama’s reignited healthcare campaign faces two burning questions. Will it succeed, after so much skirmishing and compromise, and why did it take so long for Obama to settle on the most direct route to legislative victory–the unapologetic pursuit of a majority vote through the maneuver formerly known as reconciliation?
Everyone has their theories, of course, but a recent conversation with one former Obama campaign adviser offers some provocative insights. Marshall Ganz, the veteran United Farm Workers Organizer who advised the Obama and Dean campaigns, is speaking out on the record–a rarity among Obama’s circle of disciplined political aides.
"The job of those trying to create change is actually to create crises that require a legislative solution," says Ganz, who now lectures on public policy and organizing at Harvard’s Kennedy School. "Now, a crisis that is felt by the powerless isn’t a crisis, because the powers that be don’t experience it to be a crisis. And so the challenge of the powerless," he argued in an interview last week, "is how to create the urgency."
Ganz was reflecting on the Obama administration’s struggle to summon public support for healthcare reform. He believes Obama’s team forgot the Saul Alinsky maxim that good organizers have split personalities–they polarize audiences in order to mobilize for a cause, and after building power, they depolarize to settle for negotiated gains.
"You have to create the urgency and the need for action, which inherently involves a process of polarization," Ganz explained, "but then, to actually settle anything, you have to shift and be able to negotiate." Obama, whether on the public option or lowering the age for Medicare, often seems to settle first. Ganz argues that tendency drives a "government strategy that is curiously non-assertive." He blasted both the administration and progressive groups for investing in a healthcare approach that was not only fatally flawed but obviously so, based on his reading of history:
The Obama Administration seemed to try…to mobilize by depolarizing…. it seemed like an effort to compromise your way to deep reform. I’ve never seen that that has ever worked in the history of this country, and I doubt anywhere, because it’s a contradiction. So, on the one hand, the administration was not being clear, aggressive…as it had been in the campaign…and more culpably, the leadership of the reform movements, the people who were fighting for healthcare, for labor law reform, for environmental reform, for immigration reform, all bought in to this strategy. They all bought into "let Obama do it. He knows what he’s doing."
Contrary to the conventional narrative, both in traditional and progressive media, those "reform movements" were not always outgunned. Some even had budgets that rivaled the healthcare industry. Health reform groups spent $23 million on advertising alone by last summer, for example, topping industry advertising at the time, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group.