LAS VEGAS -- The new national health care law may represent the largest expansion in the role of government since the Great Society, but for liberal activists, it was just the appetizer.
Here at the annual Netroots Nation conference for self-described progressives, organizers discussed their strategy for pushing toward their ultimate goal of a fully government-run, or single-payer, health care system.
To reach the promised land, they first have to protect the gains they've already made.
"People really want to run from the (health care) issue because of what happened with the populists, because of the way people were attacked, and it is the number one attack being used by conservatives on the right against anyone on the left, whether they voted for the bill or not," explained Melinda Gibson, an organizer for the liberal group Health Care for America NOW!
HCAN was founded in 2008 as a coalition of unions and other groups, pledging to spend $40 million on grassroots organizing and advertising campaigns to push national health care. Despite their best efforts, at last August's town hall meetings, liberal groups were out-hustled on the ground by a surge of Tea Party protesters who raised hell about the pending legislation.
"We have to make sure we don't lose August," Gibson emphasized. "August is crucial. People who experienced August last year will remember that we lost the media narrative for a long time, things were blown up on the ground, our organizers were in a defensive posture, and so it's very important that we go on the offensive."
It's a long road ahead for liberal activists, she said, referencing data from the group Working America, which has been doing voter contact with Americans for the left.
"The health care conversations they're having are very difficult," she explained. "People are very defensive and afraid, and it's taking a long time to break through some of that with various constituencies."
While she predicted that the health care law would become more popular as Americans begin to receive government checks and enjoy other new benefits, in the meantime, she argued, liberals were planning on changing the "frame" of the conversation.
"The moral of the story at this point is we have to attack back," she said. "And we have to attack and pivot. The question is not, 'let's get into a discussion of the nuances of the bill, or the implementation of it' on the ground at this point."
Instead, she put the issue in Bush-like terms: "Either you're with the American people, or you're with the insurance companies."
At one point, Gibson suggested tactics such as following an insurance executive from her "fancy" house to "fancy" lunches to make her hated by Americans.
The new anti-corporate message, she said, could be deployed throughout the battle over implementation of ObamaCare, and "hopefully" lead to another push for the public option "that will get us further and further toward where we want to go."
Another organizer on the panel, Andrew McGuire, expressed skepticism that any real change could happen at the federal level. As executive director of the California One Plan campaign, he's part of the drive to bring single-payer health care to the Golden State.
His strategy involves getting Hollywood actors, writers, musicians, and comedians to join the fight along with grassroots and online activists. He predicted that single-payer would become a reality in California within the decade, and that other states would follow.
David Welch, a registered nurse who blogs at the liberal site DailyKos and was representing the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee, said that everything he learned from labor negotiations convinced him that it was important for liberals to set their goal as the establishment of a single-payer health care system.
"The best way to achieve a better compromise is not to advocate for a better compromise," he explained. "The best way to achieve a better compromise is to advocate for the ideal."
He said that liberals made a mistake by removing single-payer from the past year's health care debate.
"One of the lessons I saw from the last debate is once the public option became defined as the left alternative, then the public option was doomed," he said. "And as long as single-payer is defined as the left alternative, it actually creates space for things like the public option and other kinds of improvements."
In the more immediate term, HCAN's Gibson echoed the concerns of a Missouri resident in the audience, who warned about the likely passage of an Aug. 3 state ballot measure against the new federal health insurance mandate, which liberals fear will bring renewed attention to public opposition to ObamaCare.
"This is a difficult road to walk, because what polling tells us is that the ballot initiative has a large potential of passing, which is unfortunate," she said. "So we don't want to elevate this to a national debate, and have other states say, 'This is something good, we should go forward with this.' At the same time, we have to fight this, because this is on our turf, this is our home, our back territory."
However, she said the likely passage of the measure is all the more reason why liberals needed to keep the focus on insurance companies.
"It's gonna be bad," she acknowledged. "That's why we have to work very hard to build this national narrative to help us insulate ourselves from incidents like what's going to happen in Missouri that we can't, at this stage of the game, prevent."
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