Axelrod gives Dems their health talking points

Senate Democrats are girding themselves for a month of vigorous debate over healthcare reform, armed with a new set of talking points from David Axelrod, the president’s chief political strategist.

Axelrod and Jim Messina, the White House deputy chief of staff, met with the Senate Democratic caucus Thursday afternoon to strategize over how to talk about healthcare during the August break.

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Axelrod told lawmakers to focus on reform of the health insurance industry when talking to constituents in their states, said Democrats who attended the meeting.

Axelrod also instructed senators to talk about Democratic healthcare reform plans in comparison to the status quo. During a press conference last month, President Barack Obama warned that without reform, Americans’ costs will double over the next 10 years.

After the meeting, Axelrod told reporters: "I think that the American people understand that the status quo works very well for insurance companies. It doesn’t always work well for them and I think that they’re going to be heard."

The White House officials also urged senators to stick to the game plan and not let themselves become distracted by criticism and town hall protests being organized by conservative and business groups.

“Much more specific advice was to stick with what we’re doing and don’t let them throw you off course,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters when asked about Axelrod’s message to the caucus.

Democratic lawmakers watched videos of protesters disrupting town-hall meetings and discussed how they should react in similar situations.

Democrats have already begun to focus their rhetoric on health insurance companies. A strategy memo obtained by The Hill last week shows that leaders have developed a strategy to attack insurance companies.

"In many respects, today’s insurance market is inhumane,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Senate Finance Committee. “It’s all about cherry-picking, it’s about taking just healthy people and sending sick folks over to government programs more fragile than they are.”

Democratic leaders have also begun an effort to discredit healthcare protesters who have begun showing up in droves when lawmakers meet with constituents to discuss healthcare reform. But some of their colleagues are wary of that strategy.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called the protests “phony” at a press conference he held earlier in the day, holding up a swatch of Astroturf to reporters to illustrate his point.

Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said the groups connected to the health insurance industry have organized the protests in an effort to protect corporate profits from new government regulations.

“This is a staged effort,” Durbin told reporters.

Several Democratic senators, however, have been careful not to dismiss the protests as mere public relations stunts.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) pointedly disagreed with her leaders in a message posted on her Twitter page.

“I disagree that the people showing concern over some healthcare proposals are ‘manufactured’ Real folks, strong opinions,” she wrote.

When asked during a Fox News interview whether strategists have manufactured the strong feelings expressed at town-hall meetings, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said: “In the town hall meeting I had, that was not the case.

“People have strong views about healthcare reform,” he said. “The overwhelming majority of Americans want to participate. They want to know how it affects them, and what it will do with their health insurance through what it will do with their healthcare costs. Those are legitimate questions.”