Sales pitch

SALES PITCH…. President Obama told Time‘s Karen Tumulty that, when it comes to health care, the need to reform the system “is so clear to me,” but he’s finding it “difficult … to describe in clear, simple terms how important it is” to get this done.

Reading the transcript of the president’s comments, I get the sense he’s a little surprised by the polls. It seems so simple — the system is broken, and everyone knows it. Tens of millions have no coverage, and millions more are underinsured or on the verge of losing their insurance. We pay too much, and get too little. Long term, without reform, the costs to taxpayers are practically ridiculous. Obama told Tumulty, “[W]hen you just start hearing the litany of facts, what you say to yourself is, ‘This shouldn’t be such a hard case to make, because the American consumer is really not getting a good deal.'”

And yet, it’s proving to be a very hard case to make, with more and more Americans buying into conservative critiques, even the ones that don’t make sense.

Ezra Klein argues, “I don’t think the problem for health-care reform is how it’s being sold,” but rather, the “congressional process” is the hang-up. Kevin Drum makes the opposite case, saying it’s all about how it’s sold.”

Everything has to have a constituency if it’s going to get passed. For ag subsidies it’s farmers. For lax financial regulation, it’s banks. For tax cuts it’s rich people.

For healthcare it’s … I dunno. Who? But that’s the point. Everyone has been so hung up on congressional process that they seem to have forgotten that Congress responds to the public. If constituents are mad as hell that their healthcare isn’t as good as France’s, they’ll flood congressional offices with phone calls. But if they think America has the best healthcare in the world, while the rest of the world is a socialist dystopia of ramshackle hospitals, yearlong waits for hip replacements, and harried doctors who can’t see you for months and treat you like a postal customer when you finally get in — well, who’s going to get pissed off about the occasional scuffle with their insurance company? And if the public isn’t worked up, then Congress won’t get worked up either.

This has always been about public opinion. Everything is about public opinion. It’s about public opinion being strong enough to overcome the resistance of whatever corporate interests are on the other side. For some reason, though, liberals don’t seem to get that anymore, and because of that we don’t spend enough time on either side of the basic vox populi equation: (a) hammering home why individuals, personally, should be unhappy with the status quo, and (b) promising them, personally, lots of cool new stuff if they buy into change.

You don’t have to lie to accomplish this. But you do have to sell, the same way any salesman anywhere sells stuff.

Kevin fears he’s “practically alone on this,” so let me heartily endorse his argument. I’m hung up on congressional process in part because I find it interesting, and in part because there have been a lot of developments of late, but when it comes to the success or failure, if the sales pitch were more effective, we’d be talking about how Republicans are trying to figure out how to justify opposing a popular, once-in-a-generation reform package that is obviously, desperately needed. We’re not having that conversation at all.

Indeed, the right, despite all of its obvious problems — inability to govern, lack of credibility, partisanship over the public good, no leadership, no ideas — understand sales extremely well. They decided early on to hammer a few ideas — socialism, Canada, rationing, complicated, taxes, small businesses — to instill doubt. They’re lying, of course, but salesmen often do. (Ideally we’d have news outlets separating fact from fiction, but to tell the public the truth would represent “bias.”)

For what it’s worth, I get the sense the White House recognizes where the administration has come up short on its sales pitch, and is trying to adjust accordingly. Expect a better sales job in August than July. Whether it’s too late remains to be seen.