How the Democrats blew the health-care fight

Mitch McConnell ingeniously deprived the news of health-care stories. So why didn't Democrats just create some?

Chuck Schumer
(Image credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

There are many remarkable things about the Senate's version of TrumpCare, which finally went public last Thursday. Chief among them is how the bill was written up: in almost total secrecy, amidst an almost total lack of news coverage.

"It was omitted from all the places most Americans get their news — television, print, and online front pages — until the past few days," lamented Brian Beutler of The New Republic. Activists and a few brave media souls spent several weeks in May and June trying to turn the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA) into the kind of news story it deserved to be, all to little avail. It will now be voted on this week with almost no serious debate, in the halls of Congress or in the nation at large.

Beutler chalked this up to a massive institutional failure of the media. And that's fair to an extent. But far more important, I think, was the failure of the Democratic Party to simply make it a big deal.

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It all begins with the "news hook." In the parlance of journalism, that's basically your excuse for writing a story. It's the unusual, the dramatic, or simply the latest event that feeds into a pre-existing narrative. It features prominently in headlines and the first few sentences of articles. It's what entices the reader into the rest of a piece by showing them something new that matters now.

The writing of ObamaCare, for instance, was a grinding process that took a year or more. There were speeches, public debates, endless committee hearings, amendments offered, fiery soundbites, scores from the Congressional Budget Office, drafts and revised drafts, and so on. Every one of these events was a news hook. As a result, the debate over ObamaCare became a fixture of news coverage, and thus remained in the public consciousness, the entire time.

This is precisely what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wanted to avoid when repealing the law.

So instead, he kept the writing of BCRA on lockdown. There were no committee hearings, which are public legislative processes for debate or amendment. There were no leaks or major speeches. There was, in short, no news. "[McConnell's] chief insight was in recognizing a bias — not among liberals, but within the news industry — toward what you might call 'new news,'" Beutler wrote. "It is that bias, more than anything else, that has brought us to the brink of living under a law that almost nobody on the planet has seen but that will uninsure millions to pay for millionaire tax cuts."

His solution is for the news industry "to migrate toward a more nuanced standard of newsworthiness."

In the most basic sense, Beutler is obviously right. But the news media didn't land on this standard of newsworthiness by happenstance. That standard is integral to its business model. The bulk of the media's revenue comes from advertising, which in turn is driven by views. The media does not make its money by driving a substantive national debate; it makes it by grabbing attention. Short of a wholesale reform of the entire economic ecosystem that funds media outfits, the standard of newsworthiness isn't changing.

But the media and the Republican Party are not the only players here. What of the Democratic Party?

To understand the economic incentives of the media is to understand the field of battle on which the two parties meet. Metaphorically speaking, that field is littered with hills and trenches and turrets and hidden tunnels. And by understanding that field, both teams can turn its quirks to their advantage. Which is precisely what McConnell did.

But Democrats could have done the same if they put their minds to it. In fact, they simply had to reverse engineer McConnell's strategy: Instead of not creating any news hooks, create as many as possible.

This really isn't hard, precisely because a news hook can be any excuse for grabbing the viewer or reader's attention. Indeed, Democrats have done it: Though they lacked the votes to block the BCRA, the Senate Democrats eventually used various procedural tools to slow it down. That required motions and floor speeches, and, of course, it briefly got everyone in a tizzy, which makes for good quotes and television. Protesters, many of them disabled, have been dragged away from McConnell's office for all the media to see. And Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) actually went on a hunt around D.C. for the BCRA's text, documenting the whole thing on social media.

It's happened on other issues too, like when House Democrats staged a sit-in and streamed it live to protest congressional gridlock on gun control. Or when Booker and other Democratic politicians joined protesters at airports to oppose President Trump's Muslim travel ban.

But what stands out about these instances is how rare they are. The Senate GOP began writing the BCRA in secret back in mid-May, but the Democrats' procedural gambits, the protests at McConnell's office, and Booker and Co.'s publicity stunt didn't happen until June 19 or later. Democrats and liberals just sat on their haunches and allowed this story to be kept hidden from view, while the media and the public moved on to other subjects, for a month.

A month. In the era of Trump, a month is a lifetime.

I suspect there are two reasons for why Democrats were so listless for so long on this story.

The first is that the Democratic leadership probably wanted the investigation into potential collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign to dominate the news coverage. As my colleague Ryan Cooper lays out, this was a deeply misguided strategy.

The second is that there's something about a stunt-based strategy that might just run contrary to Democrats' character. Let's be frank: Democratic politicians and many leaders of liberal activist movements are pulled from people who aren't just well paid, but well educated. They're used to a particular style of civic engagement, one that prioritizes information — and analyzing and debating it. (By depriving everyone of a bill text to analyze, McConnell threw them for a loop here, too.)

Creating news hooks, by contrast, is fundamentally about performance: Making some interesting noise, or a compelling narrative, regardless of the actual information you have. For many Democrats and liberals, this probably instinctively seems like low or unworthy behavior. And it takes extreme events to shock them out of their comfort zone, often too late.

But Democrats, like all politicians, also want to win. I imagine many of the structural incentives that govern Democrats' behavior will likely push them to get better at creating news hooks. So while I agree the media needs to change, changing Democratic Party strategy strikes me as a faster and easier proposition.

Politics is not an Ivy League debate club. It's a back-alley brawl. And generally speaking, you win brawls by fighting a little dirty.

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