The Senator Takes on Talking Points

Who Do You Trust?

“Who do you trust? The HMO-coddling, drug-company loving, Medicare-destroying, Social-Security hating Bush Administration? Or do you trust the Democrats?” 

— Senator Ted Kennedy, Dec. 8, 2001

THE HUFFINGTON POST GOT IT RIGHT. SORT OF.

“Senator Calls Out Frank Luntz from the Senate Floor” read a June 10 headline on the national Internet news site. Huffington Post’s political reporter Sam Stein had seized on a short speech that Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley made on the Senate floor, attacking veteran Republican consultant Frank Luntz for circulating twenty-five pages of talking points to be used against any health care legislation the Democrats might offer up.

The memo drew on extensive polling and identified inflammatory language that could be used to undermine health care. Turning out this quality material has been Luntz’s métier since he helped Newt Gingrich draft the Contract with America in 1994. And it is, in fact, unusual for a senator to stand in the well of the Senate and critique a memo written by a political consultant.

If the Huffington Post was close, the more obscure Loaded Orygun was spot on. The regional Internet site that “delivers the straight scoop on news, politics and other cool happenings around the state of Oregon” focused on what editors call the “so what” of a story: a senator with four months of seniority had stepped up to the lectern in the Senate chamber and attacked the minority leader who had been a member of the club for twenty-five years. And pulled no punches.

Loaded Orygun blogger “Torridjoe” was so taken with Merkley’s three-minute speech that he apologized for his earlier lack of enthusiasm. “The word ‘milquetoast’ got a lot of use on Merkley, by me as much as anyone,” Torridjoe wrote.

“So, so wrong.”

He went on to praise Merkley for “a devastating critique of both Frank Luntz for offering health reform-killing talking points designed to scare … and the Minority Leader of the Senate Mitch McConnell, for taking the points and running with them.”

Merkley—who spent eight years in the minority of the Oregon House and two years as its speaker—has never been known for his oratorical skills. Yet he vindicated himself on the floor of the Senate when he used the Luntz memo to challenge the Republican majority leader’s integrity:

Frank Luntz’s memo on how to kill health care came out in April. It says–talking point number five: “Health care denial horror stories from Canada and other countries do resonate, but you have to humanize them. We recommend the phrase ‘government takeover’ rather than ‘government run’ or ‘government control.'”

Why? Because government takeover sounds even scarier. So what did we hear in the chamber from our minority leader just recently? I quote: “Americans are concerned about a government takeover of health care and for good reason.”

Let’s take a look at another example: “Time is a government health care killer, nothing else turns people against government takeover of health care more than the expectation that this plan will result in delayed and denied treatment. …” I’ll note that this is about a plan that wasn’t written. It’s about any plan put forward. “The arguments against this plan must center around politicians, bureaucrats in Washington. …”

And what have we heard on the floor of this chamber from the minority leader? “Americans don’t want to be forced by bureaucrats,” that comes right out of the talking points, “to give up their private health care plan to be pushed into a Washington-run government plan.” Right out of those talking points. “They don’t want to wait two years for surgery. And they don’t want to be told they’re too old for surgery.” All of this straight out of this road map.

My friends, it is irresponsible in the face of 50 million Americans without health care, with working Americans in every one of our states going bankrupt as they struggle with health care expenses. It’s irresponsible to utilize a road map of rhetoric that comes from polling about how to scare people. That’s irresponsible.

OFF THE BENCH—If Jeff Merkley was an unlikely senator to call out the minority leader, he was also an unlikely candidate to take down Gordon Smith, who had represented Oregon in the Senate since 1996 and won his last election by a 16 percent margin. Former Democratic Governor John Kitzhaber would have been a stronger candidate.

Veteran Democrats in the congressional delegation, Peter DeFazio and Earl Blumenauer, had decades of experience in Washington and high name recognition in a state with only five congressional districts. Yet none of the party’s big names entered the race.

“He knew he was the fifth choice and was hoping that a bigger name would step up and take on Senator Smith,” said Michael Zamore, who was working for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) when Merkley emerged as the default candidate. (Zamore now works on Merkley’s staff.)

Merkley traveled to Washington to meet with New York Senator Chuck Schumer, who chaired the DSCC and urged Merkley to join the race.

The DSCC even got involved in the Oregon primary, to ensure that Merkley, and not Steve Novick, would be the party’s candidate in November. Novick, who as a young Department of Justice lawyer litigated the historic Love Canal lawsuit, is a progressive environmental lawyer and political activist with a resume that appealed to liberal Democrats.

CADILLAC CAMPAIGN—Once the intramural contest was decided, the DSCC gave it up for Merkley. The committee’s $11.6 million—more than it spent on any other race in 2008 and more than each of the candidates individually spent in Oregon—contributed to the most expensive Senate campaign in the state’s history. Almost $50 million was spent by the candidates, the two Senate committees, and advocacy groups—in a race in which only 1.6 million votes were cast, and that Merkley won by 40,000 votes.

Merkley was one of ten candidates who got substantial support from the DSCC, which outspent the National Republican Senatorial Committee $155.7 million to $90.6 million. If DSCC spending in the 2008 Senate races provided a civics-book case for campaign finance reform, it also produced a remarkable freshman class that includes Mark Begich (AK), Mark Udall (CO), Al Franken (MN), Jeanne Shaheen (NH), and Kay Hagan (NC). Like Merkley, Begich, Franken and Hagan defeated incumbents.

Did the committee get a bang for the eleven million bucks it spent in Oregon?

The Senate race—and the Obama candidacy—altered the political dynamics of the state, according to the Oregon Democratic Party’s executive director Trent Lutz. Lutz said the party registered 250,000 new voters in a state with 2 million registered voters, moving from something close to parity with Republicans to a 4 percent to 5 percent lead.

And the senator himself?

He voted to curtail funding for the F-22 fighter jet, a defense contractors’ perennial pork barrel project described in these pages (“Bob Gates vs. Lockheed Martin,” Washington Spectator, April 15, 2009).

He co-sponsored, with the late Senator Ted Kennedy, the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, anathema to blogosphere wingnuts and talk radio windbags because it provides legal protections for gays and lesbians.

He pressed Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to direct the Treasury to auction warrants that banks exchanged with the Treasury when they took bailout money, rather than selling them back to the banks at a discount.

Merkley was also on the losing end of one well-intentioned fight on the floor, where as a member of the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee he supported an amendment that would have allowed homeowners facing foreclosure to negotiate with lenders to reduce monthly mortgage payments.

(This is not to suggest a perfect legislative record. Merkley’s vote for a Tom Coburn (R-OK) amendment that will now allow individuals to carry guns in national parks is hard to explain—in particular to park rangers trying to enforce the law in the parks.)

Besides being a standup guy on the floor of the Senate, Merkley has embraced health care reform. He amended the bill reported out of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on which he serves, to expand the number of small businesses included in insurance “gateways” created to enhance the bargaining power of small businesses and individuals shopping for private health insurance.

More important, Merkley is a resolute supporter of the “public option,” a government-run health insurance provider that would compete with private companies. He is one of sixteen senators who signed a letter sent to the Democratic chairs of the two Senate committees drafting health care bills, Ted Kennedy (MA) and Max Baucus (MT), arguing the merits of a government-run insurance program.

Mark Udall, Al Franken, Jeanne Shaheen, and Kay Hagan have since come out in support of the public option—considered to be the best mechanism to bring down insurance premiums and extend coverage to the uninsured. Of the freshman Senators carried into office by DSCC funding, only Alaska’s Begich hasn’t signed on with the public option.

The other committee assignment Merkley requested, Environment and Public Works, places him in the eye of the second legislative storm that will move through the Senate this fall: the cap and trade climate bill that the House passed before the August recess.

In Oregon Merkley was elected speaker of the House as the Democrats took control of both chambers of the legislature for the first time in sixteen years. House and Senate leaders moved a backlog of progressive legislation, much of it environmental. As a candidate for the U.S. Senate, Merkley ran with a 96 percent rating from the Oregon League of Conservation Voters (plus $250,000 in contributions), according to executive director Jonathan Poisner.

Asked about his position on the cap and trade bill, Merkley begins with a survey of geologic time: four 280-parts-per-million spikes of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over the past 400,000 years, and the burning of coal and gas for energy now has us at 380 parts-per-billion and climbing. “It’s well established that carbon dioxide, as well as increases in methane gas, trap heat,” he said. “You can see evidence in the Arctic and the Antarctic, warming of the ocean, the melting Greenland Ice Sheet and with the thawing of the permafrost….This is a real stewardship issue for our planet and I think we need to be very aggressive in taking on carbon dioxide and other global warming gases.”

Merkley would like to see more “integrity in the offsets” in the cap and trade bill and would prefer to separate the efficiency component from the renewable energy component. It appears he will be a solid vote for the bill.

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST—I began following Merkley as he traveled to four town halls in Oregon in early August, just as the right wing began to turn the meetings into angry spectacles (see “Preying on Fear and Predicting the Final Solution,” Washington Spectator September 1, 2009). Addressing a crowd, Merkley is unprepossessing and earnest almost to a fault—more like a high school civics teacher than a United States senator.

At the town hall meetings, the senator fielded questions that ranged from reasonable to absurd with the same focus, nodding and politely listening (even as a woman warned of a Nazi plot to euthanize older Americans and said she feared that Barack Obama might hasten biblical prophecies of the end of the world.)

When I asked Merkley about the scripted and choreographed dissenters disrupting meetings across the country, he paused. “There are forces who are determined to stop health care even if it means misleading people,” he said. He returned to the Luntz memo. “That memo really laid out that their goal was to destroy health care reform…. It wasn’t an honest discussion about health care issues.”

DEFENDING THE PUBLIC OPTION—He said he is still committed to a public option that would compete with private insurers. (The bill that was voted out of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee includes a public option.) And that he has a responsibility to “clear up the myths that some of these people are putting out there.” Merkley has scheduled another ten town hall meetings for September. As Molly Ivins often observed, some people know how to have a good time.

None of this is to suggest that one junior Democratic senator can make an honest legislator out of Mitch McConnell or turn the health care debate in a different direction. Yet early on, the junior senator from Oregon got it right. Congressional Republicans long ago made a decision on health care reform; as a result are they are now engaged in a carefully plotted program of delay and deceit. “Their underlying position is weak,” he said in an interview, “so they have to mislead people to try to have an effective voice.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has made it clear that legislation coming out of the House will include a public option. So as the Congress reconvenes, we approach gut-check time for Senate Democrats. The argument that Jeff Merkley made on the Senate floor at the beginning of summer suggests what we should be watching for at the beginning of fall. Will it occur to Senate Democrats that standing up in defiance of a Republican minority using deceit and fear to kill legislation might be both good policy and good politics?

THE GANG OF SIX—As the Congress returns in September, six senators stand in the way of health care reform. The bottleneck is the Senate Finance Committee, where Democratic Chair Max Baucus has allowed a bipartisan group to conclude that a public option is not an option.

Max’s “gang” includes three members of each party. Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has run one set of numbers on the states represented by the gang. On the Democratic side, Montana’s Max Baucus, New Mexico’s Jeff Bingaman, and North Dakota’s Kent Conrad represent 1 percent of the population of the United States. On the Republican side, Charles Grassley of Iowa, Mike Enzi of Wyoming, and Olympia Snowe of Maine represent 1.6 percent. The elected representatives of 2.6 percent of the population of the country hold health care reform in their hands.

Consider another set of numbers for “the gang of four”— the committee chair and the three Republicans. Based on OpenSecrets.org’s analysis, Baucus received $1,717,130 from health care and insurance interests in the 2008 campaign cycle. His lifetime take from the industry is $3,544,835. Ranking Republican Charles Grassley received $698,891 from health care and insurance interests in 2008 and a lifetime total of $1,955,387. Wyoming Republican Mike Enzi received $489,999 in the 2008 cycle and a career total of $781,419. Maine Republican Olympia Snowe received $338,159 in the 2008 cycle and $963,149 during her Senate career. All three Republicans oppose the public option. Baucus is determined to deliver a bill that committee Republicans—or at least the gangbangers—can support.