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The Left’s Surprising Organizing Advantage

Resource type: News

The Washington Post (Blogs) |

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Health Care for America Now is an Atlantic grantee.

Last week, the Health Care for America Now coalition celebrated its first birthday. Formed, well, a year ago, with an initial infusion of $40 million and a coalition list that includes, SEIU, the Campaign for America’s Future, and pretty much every other institution even vaguely on the left, HCAN has quickly become the dominant grassroots player on health-care reform. Which is really saying something.

Talk to veterans of the 1994 effort and they will invariably lament the total absence of a liberal ground game. The grassroots energy came primarily from conservative groups and trade organizations. The National Federation of Independent Business was, for instance, very effective at influencing legislators. So too was the Chamber of Commerce. There was no analogue on the left. Unions were exhausted and angry after the NAFTA battle. All-purpose progressive organizations like and Campaign for America’s Future were largely non-existent. The conservatives dominated talk radio, but liberals did not have the online organizing infrastructure that they’ve utilized so successfully in recent years.

This year, the legislators flipping their positions under activist pressure are centrist Democrats who have been targeted by HCAN and its allies. The news stories about rallies and letter-writing campaigns and grassroots efforts tend to feature liberals organizing in support of the public option. And then, of course, there’s the 800-pound gorilla that is Organizing for America, Obama’s grassroots structure. The millions and millions of supporters on that list haven’t really been activated yet, but there’s every indication that they will be.

And on the other side? A former hospital corporation CEO who had to resign amid allegation of widespread fraud has formed Conservatives for Patients Rights. The insurer Wellpoint is beginning to campaign against the public option. Other, more credible, groups could eventually step into the void. But they’ll have lost a lot of crucial preparation time. And there’s no umbrella organization playing the coordinating role of HCAN.

There are a couple caveats to this, of course. The energy on the left is, for better or worse, substantially linked to the public plan. If something called a “public plan” isn’t in the final legislation, it will be difficult to sustain their enthusiasm. And conservatives have an extremely potent and agile grassroots mechanism built around talk radio. Indeed, when that kicks into gear, you’ll probably see the first real battle between the online left and the airwave right. But unlike in 1994, it will actually be a fight.

Photo credit: Tim Sloan/Getty Images.

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HCAN, Health Care for America Now