Can Populism Save Health Care?

The opponents of President Obama's health care reforms that have made their voices heard at public events this August fall into two camps, according to columnist Gene Lyons: conservative ideologues, and people who are just plain scared. Health care can be a scary thing, and a prime reason this debate has been so fierce and emotional is probably that health care is such a fundamental concern, and even the specter (real or imagined) of losing the ability to get health treatment is terrifying. Lyons offers a prescription for the White House: populism--telling Americans that, when it comes to health reform, they're being manipulated by paid conservative propagandists and "New York, Washington and Hollywood 'media elites' who lie for money."

So far, the White House has done some of that: Obama urged the audience at his town-hall event in Portsmouth, New Hampshire last week, "Where we do disagree, let's disagree over things that are real, not these wild misrepresentations that bear no resemblance to anything that's actually been proposed."

But Lyons seems to want Democrats and the White House to go on more of an offensive, to turn populist frenzy against conservative talk show hosts, bloggers, strategists...those "media elites." The thinking is that, if the other side is engaged in a vicious campaign to lie about health care and use public fears to defeat the president, then the president's team needs to get more fight savage demagoguery with savageness of its use to its advantage public fears of "media elites" and resentment of East and West Coasts where those elites reside.

The White House calls misrepresentations as it sees them, but Lyons's idea is to go all-out for demonizing the people at the top levels of health care opposition. Would it work? Perhaps. Democrats have already gone after the alleged astroturfers and called town-hall protesters astroturfed "mobs."

Lyons is right: Democrats could use the playing field to its advantage a bit more--a playing field that includes public resentments it could capitalize on, and there may be some advantage in beating the "they're lying to you" drum a bit harder. But capitalizing on some fears can be a tricky game, and Democrats seem to enjoy their moral authority. Whether following Lyons's advice would remove that authority depends on how it gets followed.