Dems abandoning leadership advice

An August in which Democrats were supposed to return home to sell the merits of a universal healthcare plan has turned into one where members are publicly fending for themselves.

Some have even shunned the talking points and tactics their leaders encouraged them to use to gin up support for the Democratic healthcare bill as they’ve engaged with sometimes hostile constituents.

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Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) recently lashed out at Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) recommended talking points aimed at the insurance industry, and criticized her approach in a letter to a local private insurance company, according to the Louisville Courier Journal.

“Regrettably, with passions inflamed throughout the country, Speaker Pelosi recently made inflammatory statements that assailed the character of health insurers across the board. I unequivocally reject those misguided comments,” Yarmouth wrote to the CEO of Louisville-based Humana, the paper reported this week.

Democrats unveiled a line of attack against the private insurance industry after the House failed to move a healthcare bill before August recess, an attack President Barack Obama has taken up in recent days. Pelosi called insurers the “villains” of the healthcare reform debate.

Even Democrats who are not part of the central leadership team were confident that attacking the insurance industry would play well, even in districts where members were due to face a backlash against “socialized medicine.”

But Yarmuth’s comments show the strategy has less than unanimous support.

Some Democrats remain intent on staying on message, but are  increasingly opting to do so in more controlled settings.

Instead of opting for an open, public forum, where they are subject to jeers and confrontations that are dripping onto web sites like YouTube.com almost hourly, some lawmakers are conducting constituent meetings over the Internet.

“Holding a telephone town hall meeting is an effective way for me to hear from thousands of residents across the Tampa Bay area,” Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) said in a statement.

A member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and a strong supporter of the leading House healthcare bill backed by her chairman, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), she opted for a tele-town hall after an earlier event turned violent and police had to provide her with a escort out of the event to ensure her safety.

Castor, though, painted her telephone town hall as a convenience for constituents.

“It’s convenient for my neighbors too. You don’t need to leave your house to participate. Folks simply answer the phone to access the call or dial in, which is helpful to those who cannot travel or suffer the August heat and thunderstorms.”

The pressure members are feeling to navigate the remainder of the August recess without being skewered on YouTube was relayed to Democratic leaders on a caucus conference call earlier this week.

But leadership aides only told members to avoid becoming discouraged, and to avoid canceling their public meetings.

Leadership aides have also been giving members tips on how to keep their meetings calm and civil, including bringing along other local civic leaders – an approach that did not have the desired effect at Castor’s Aug. 6 town hall – and to highlight “personal stories” by having their constituents with healthcare horror stories appear on stage alongside them.