The Plank

Harry And Louise, Meet Elizabeth Edwards

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Political autopsies of the failed campaign for universal health care in the 1990s frequently focus on the activities of special interests who opposed it. Not that many people saw the infamous "Harry and Louise" ads, in which an average-looking couple sat at their dining room table worrying that the Clinton health plan would take away their choice of doctor. But the ads came to symbolize the misleading, and expensive, lobbying campaign waged by small insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry, and other conservative groups. Perhaps no less important, it gave the opposition to universal coverage a visible and sympathetic face (or, to be more accurate, set of faces).

But it wasn't just the lobbying against the Clinton health care plan that killed it; it was also the lack of lobbying for it. Proponents of reform had hoped that like-minded interest groups would push back against the anti-reform lobbies. But the unions, famously, sat out most of the health care debate because they had spent so much time and money fighting the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993. The AARP, meanwhile, had to hold its fire because leaks about possible Medicare cuts had spooked seniors. 

This time around, progressives seem determined not to make the same mistake. Back in February, the Service Employees International Union--the labor movement's largest and most powerful memeber--announced it was launching a $75 million lobbying campaign for universal coverage. Now comes word that the Campaign for America's Future, a Washington-based group that has also been agitating for universal coverage, is helping to launch a new, $40 million campaign of its own.

The campaign, which will go by the name "Health Care for America Now," represents an array of interest groups, large and small--everybody from the American Academy of Pediatricians to the Idaho Community Action Network. It will include both television advertising and grassroots organizing, all designed to generate the kind of political pressure for reform that didn't materialize in 1994. And just to make things really stick, it's tapped Elizabeth Edwards to speak at the inaugural press conference on Tuesday.

It's not clear yet what other role Edwards might play in the campaign. But Edwards--who, as readers of this blog know, is a serious health care policy wonk--has in the last few months emerged as universal coverage's most effective advocate, frequently going after John McCain on the inadequacies of his health care reform proposals. If she can become reform's most visible face, in the same way Harry and Louise came to epitomize the opposition to reform in 1994, chances of actually passing universal coverage this time around should be signficantly greater.

--Jonathan Cohn 

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