Can’t We Just Scare The American Public Into Mobilizing Around Health Care Reform?

It may be pointing out the obvious, but the general public overwhelmingly supports comprehensive health reform. Most are even willing to pay higher taxes to bring costs down and cover everyone. Consider these poll results:

– When asked to name “the most important problem facing the country today,” the public now rates health care second only to the economy

– 83 percent said it was “very important” that “any health care reform plan” makes sure all Americans are covered

61 percent said they were willing to pay higher taxes to achieve those goals, and more than half said they were willing to have the Government require employers to pay most of the health insurance premiums to cover their workers

Health reform advocates, myself included, sometimes interpret this data as validation of our vision of reform and its inevitability (to use the words of Sen. Max Baucus).


But we shouldn’t get too comfortable. These numbers aren’t from 2008 or the last election cycle — they’re from 1993. From September 1993, just as President Clinton was making his case for reform to the public. Then, just like today, the people were on his side. They overwhelmingly supported a larger government role in the health care system, an employer mandate, a personal financial sacrifice etc…

But the reformers still failed. The President may have been focused on health reform, he may have been energetically making his case to the public, but opponents scared the public about the consequences of reform.

Unfortunately, Americans are no more concerned about reform sixteen years later. Today, sixty-two percent of voters say the economic crisis makes it more important than ever to take on health care reform, but “many Americans are nervous that health care overhaul may actually worsen their coverage.” According to the pollsters, “voters are equally as anxious about changing the health care system as they are hopeful that an overhaul will improve their situation.”

As Chris Jennings points out at the National Journal blog, “when it comes to health reform, fear beats hope. In the past, this has meant that nothing gets done.”

So the problem is not in convincing the American people that we need reform; they’ve heard that message before and they overwhelmingly agree with it. The real goal, this time, is to do a better job in mobilizing that public support into action for change. It’s about getting all the troops behind a proposal that lowers costs and expands coverage. And it’s also about flipping anxiety about reform into anxiety about inaction.


We should adopt the model of our opponents: convince Americans that rising costs are a threat (check!) and then explain to them that while you understand their anxieties, if we fail to act, then the economy and the rising costs of health care will devastate the American family and economy.

It’s not really about scaring people, it’s about warning them about the realistic consequences of inaction.