Why is the Main Obamacare Event in Charlotte So Empty?

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SEPTEMBER 5, 2012

Why is the Main Obamacare Event in Charlotte So Empty?

CHARLOTTE—The Affordable Care Act got a relatively strong defense from the podium in Charlotte on Tuesday night. This is less surprising than you might assume. Obama has been talking up his accomplishment for a while, even embracing the phrase, “Obamacare,” that Republicans invented as a source of derision. And the speaker who got so much attention last night, Stacy Lihn, has spoken out on behalf of the law previously. An official campaign video telling the story of how Obamacare helped their daughter, born with a congenital defect, began circulating online several months ago.

But the contrast to late 2010 and early 2011 is real enough. At that point, Obama and the Democrats wanted to talk about anything but health care reform. What explains the shift? It helps that the law has started to deliver real benefits that people can grasp: Senior citizens are getting more help with prescription drug costs. Young adults have the options to stay on their parents’ policies when they can’t get insurance on their own. Circumstances have also changed. Repeal is an idle threat as long as Obama sits in the White House. If Romney wins, and if Republicans have even 50 votes in the Senate, repeal is not only possible but likely.

But are the activists and organizers of the Democratic Party ready to fight for the cause they claim to cherish? This was a problem even before Obamacare became law. And as I sit here in Charlotte, at an event sponsored by the advocacy group FamiliesUSA, I wonder if it's still a problem now.

A little background: Families USA is the most prominent advocacy group that focuses exclusively on improving health care access. Its founder and president, Ron Pollack, has worked as relentlessly and consistently for reform as any non-government official I know. These events have become a quadrennial exercise: At every convention, the Democratic officials who work most closely with health care attend, as much to pay tribute to the group as to talk about their agenda. The 2004 Boston event was at Fanueil Hall, the very spot where then-Governor Romney would eventually sign the law that became Obamacare’s template.

The speakers at this year’s event include House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, Senate HELP Chairman Tom Harkin, and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Nancy DeParle—as well as Vicki Kennedy, widow of the late Senator. That’s most of the key players who got the health care through Congress. And, by all rights, this event should be a raucous celebration.

The law is far from perfect: It’s more a starter home than a mansion, as Harkin likes to say. And the wonky activist crowd here probably is too aware of that for its own good. But ever since the 1930s, Democrats have promised at their conventions to pass universal health care. Now, for the first time, they can say they did it.

But this feels more like a seminar than a rally. Pelosi gets a standing ovation and Harkin, an underrated speaker, rouses the crowd with a call to “embrace Obamacare.” Other speakers, particularly Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin and Vivek Murthy, from Doctors for America, get the crowd’s attention. (Shumlin does it by bragging about the progress towards single-payer they’ve made in Vermont.) But mostly it’s polite clapping and sleepy faces. And the crowd, which peaked at around 300 when Pelosi spoke, is down to about 150 by the time it ends. Seating is not at a premium.

This may reflect logistical circumstances, of course. It’s being held at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which is adjacent to the Convention Center and inside the outer security perimeter. (The race-cars circling on the fake speedway behind the stage is pretty much the opposite of what it looked like 8 years ago at Fanueil Hall.) It’s next door to the location of yesterday’s Planned Parenthood rally—and, as was the case with that event, I think the hard-to-reach location depressed attendance.

But I’ll be listening tonight and tomorrow, to see how strongly Clinton and then Obama speak out on behalf of reform—and then I’ll be watching, to see how strongly the party faithful respond.

The causes that seem to consistently generate real passion in Charlotte, on the streets and in the arena, are reproductive rights and opposition to the Romney-Ryan budgets. The latter offer a chance to make health care reform part of the conversation, as it should be, but it’s up to the rank-and-file party members—as much as the leaders—to take advantage of that opportunity.

Follow me on twitter @CitizenCohn 

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posted in: jonathan cohn, politics, health care, charlotte, nancy pelosi, stacy lihn, tom harkin, senate, white house, the plank

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