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Health Care Replaced by the Bigger Story

The Philadelphia Tribune, News Report , Tribune Staff Posted: Aug 26, 2009

During the presidential election, the economy was the nations first priority. But this summer it has been replaced by health-care reform. Now, the two topics are largely viewed as separate issues with the health-care debate devolving into a political version of a barroom brawl.

If President Barack Obamas administration and the Democrats in Congress had coupled health care to the economic crisis and then presented a unified front, they would have had a much easier time selling reform to a broad swath of the American public, according to some political insiders.

I dont know how you talk about one without talking about the other, said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster. If the presidents folks had handled this well and I think its been mishandled the recession should be an easier way to sell health care.

The health-care debate has been front and center for the last few months eclipsing the economy in headlines and on talk shows even as unemployment has increased. First time jobless claims this week jumped to 576,000, according to data released on Wednesday by the Labor Department. That was higher than official projections, which anticipated about 561,000 new claims.

But, health care has claimed much of the national attention despite those figures. Debate over reform has centered around rhetoric that often clouds the actual issue or a focus on the cost of overhauling the system.

Obama and congressional Democrats were missing the opportunity to use the stagnating economy to direct the health-care debate, according to Madonna, looking to a precedent set right here in Pennsylvania.

Theyve let the cost issue and how you pay for it drive the debate, Madonna said, going on to point to a senatorial race between Harris Wofford and Dick Thornburgh in 1991.

In that race, Wofford won using the slogan If you lose your job you lose your health care.

Similarly, the fact that so many Americans are now unemployed or facing unemployment should make health-care reform a top priority.

I dont actually think you can separate the two, Madonna said. If we did not have the recession and we did not have all this concern about it it would be harder to get this through.

Nia Meeks, a professional campaign adviser, echoed Madonna.

The economy is not going to get better over night, she said. [Obama] spent a lot of time dealing with the economy because that was the major crisis. What he didnt do was really build a case for why health care was the next major crisis. Had he done that we would not be in the same condition as far as these debates.

Arguments against health care are largely based on fear, Meeks said.

Those fears are increased because of the economic uncertainty linking the two issues in peoples minds to a degree that might not exist in a better economy.

Were at a really scary time for a lot of people, she said. People dont know whether or not theyre going to lose their job.

Thats particularly true for African Americans who were already faced with the double-digit economy that is now seeping out into the broader work force.

Were like the canary in the well, Meeks said.

She would have advised the president and Democratic leaders to make their case more assertively at the start.

There hasnt been enough explanation to the basic populous, agreed Sheila Simmons, an education advocate from Philadelphia. There was more explaining that needs to be done that wasnt done or it was drowned out by all the nonsense.

The nonsense Simmons referred to has supplanted the real health-care debate in the national consciousness. It has also replaced most the national conversation on the economy.

We need to get the facts out, Simmons said. We need to be able to understand how it affects individuals with insurance and without insurance. We keep talking about whats in it for me.

In approaching health-care reform, individual Democrats in Congress took over most of the strategy heading out to their districts to discuss it with their constituents.

It wasnt a strong message. It wasnt a cohesive message. It wasnt a passionate message. It wasnt one of urgency, Simmons said. I dont think they did enough to tie peoples needs to health-care reform.

Bishop Audrey Bronson, president of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, said the health care debate is just a smoke screen being used by Washington insiders to mask the economy.

The number one issue, she said, was the economy.

Its the economy because if the people had jobs, they wouldnt have to worry about having insurance, Bronson said. If they had adequate income, they wouldnt have to worry about it, so I think its a distraction.

Health-care reform will help the economy, said political commentator Marc Lamont Hill. So much money is being spent in an inefficient way.

Like others, Hill said a more unified approach by Democrats would have propelled the debate in a different direction.

I think the Democrats got very comfortable with having a super-majority, he said. What they didnt account for was the American peoples response to that. There are many Americans, Democrats included, who have some deep skepticism so what you end up with is the Democratic Party is itself scattered. There cant be a unified message because there is not a unified agenda.

Radio commentator Bill Anderson for 900AM WURD said the debate over health-care reform centered on non-topics and so it served as a distraction from an improving economy.

Most of the indicators were turning around, he said. I think the economy is on the upswing so I think that the typical media that would like to discredit the president has focused solely on the health-care debate and moved away from any successes that hes had.

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