Harry and Louise, hijacked

You could hear the Hollywood buzz even in Washington this week: “Harry and Louise are back.” Naturally, I was curious. That series of commercials from my past has become so iconic of healthcare debates that Paul Krugman of The New York Times has coined the verb “Harry and Louised,” typically used in the context of “Will the Obama-Kennedy-Baucus plan be ‘Harry and Louised’ by the healthcare industry?”

In the process of making those commercials, I fell in love with the actress, Louise, and we were married shortly after the campaign ended. So I felt pretty confident I would know if she planned a return to the role anytime soon. It turns out someone is casting actors to play the original characters in a new commercial. The audition script goes back to the kitchen table and attacks Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) for supporting the healthcare industry and raising questions about the public plan option. There is no way to tell if other senators or House members might also be targets of the ads, but Sen. Lincoln is the one called out in the auditions.

Why someone would cast two new actors in the roles is beyond me. Harry and Louise are 15 years older now, but so is anyone who would remember the original spots. As the writer/director of those ads, I must also confess I’m a little concerned about how well someone else will execute the concept we came up with a decade and a half ago. Call it professional territoriality.

The imitation spot also causes me to reflect on how different the healthcare debate of 1993-94 and this one in 2009 are. The Clinton plan was crafted largely in secret with little input from the Congress. When the health insurance industry tried to get a seat at the table, they were bluntly told, “We need an enemy and you are it.” Contrast that with the inclusive process of the Obama White House. The president has set out goals and objectives but left the details to be drafted by experienced and powerful committee chairmen. Obama has invited everyone to the table to discuss healthcare reform — business groups, health insurers, doctors, the pharmaceutical industry and numerous consumer and patient advocacy groups have all had input. No one can say they’ve been excluded.

Fifteen years ago, health insurers reacted to the few details leaked from the healthcare task force with alarm. What they were hearing suggested that most of their companies — there were then some 300 — would be forced out of business. Their natural reaction was to fight, and fight hard. This time around the president has made clear that he wants to build on the private insurer/employer-based system that covers most Americans. He’s reassured everyone that if they like the plan they have, they can keep it. That doesn’t leave much to fight over except for the pesky public plan option that still makes private insurers very nervous.

Even more important is a significant change in public attitudes toward reform. In ’93-94 two thirds of the public said they wanted “radical reform” of the healthcare system. But when you drilled down into the data what they meant was coverage they could get, coverage they could afford and coverage they could keep if they changed or lost their job. Voters really didn’t want a government-run health plan. Now the public is much more radicalized. While they do worry about cost, some 72 percent in recent polls endorse the public plan option.

Harry and Louise echoed public sentiment in those days. They wanted reform — in fact they endorsed that goal in virtually every one of the 14 ads produced over that yearlong debate. They just questioned the complexity of the Clinton proposal, which was complicated enough to find lots of points to quibble over. What in popular mythology was a fierce attack was actually just a couple of Middle Americans raising questions. The message and the messengers both resonated with the public, and by the end of the campaign two-thirds of Americans opposed the Clinton plan.

We are in a very different political environment now, which is why the Obama proposal has not been “Harry and Louised.” In fact, there has been virtually no visible campaign against the White House proposal. We’ll have to see if a skirmish develops over the public option and who pays for the proposals, but I seriously doubt we’ll see an effort at all like in 1993-94. Which makes one question even more a copycat campaign attacking senators.

I can assure you, Harry and Louise wouldn’t do that.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen. E-mail: ben@gcsa.com