Health Care Flashback: Harry and Louise

With health care ads hitting the air in anticipation of the coming legislative battle, advocates on both sides can look to history to learn a thing or two.

With health care ads hitting the air in anticipation of the coming legislative battle, advocates on both sides can look to history to learn a thing or two. Fifteen years ago, a fictional couple named Harry and Louise helped stop a similar debate in its tracks. "The goal was not to defeat the Clinton health care plan," said Ben Goddard, who created the ads. "It was to get some changes made in it. They treated us like an enemy and forced it into an up-or-down situation. They wanted zero changes. It was 'my way or the highway.'" I sat down with Goddard a few weeks ago at the offices of his firm, Goddard Claussen, while researching my story on advocacy consulting, and we spoke about the best strategies for winning advocacy campaigns. The Harry and Louise ads, paid for by a consortium of insurance companies, presented a couple who wanted reform, but were unsure that the Clinton plan was the right way. Goddard said that his firm's research, like the Clintons', showed that two-third of Americans wanted reform. "The thing we did that I don't think the Clintons did is drill down to see what 'radical health care reform' means," he said. What Goddard discovered was that people wanted three things: health care they could get; health care they could afford; and health care they could keep if they lost their job. The Clintons offered something else, something undesired: "all these various specifications and details in an incredibly complex plan," according to Goddard. Goddard decided to create an iconic American couple that could speak to voters as if over the dinner table. The ads drew a huge response from the media. One study found that the couple earned more press than either then-Vice President Al Gore or House Speaker Dennis Hastert. That was important. It's often hard for advocacy campaigns to earn media, since there is no back-and-forth sniping between candidates. You can earn media when you form a coalition or hire a new spokesperson, Goddard said, but the bulk of the media has to be paid for. In an ideal world—like the 1994 fight—your paid media will then earn media, too. For today's campaigns, media might be as much online as on television. On some campaigns, Goddard Claussen does not buy airtime outside of the Beltway. A campaign needs to convince legislators that the wrong vote could cost them political. And as former Sen. Everett Dirkson once quipped, "When I feel the heat, I see the light." So an advocacy campaign needs to generate grassroots heat. The Harry and Louise ads pushed voters to call an 800 number for more information, from which the most active advocates could be culled to sign petitions or contact legislators. Goddard has done no candidate work since 1990, working in that time for groups a disparate as the Pew Environmental Trust and the Edison Electric Institute. That wide-ranging clientele can make a firm seem blinded by money. But Goddardhas a defense for his bipartisan firm: "We're like lawyers," he said. "Everyone deserves a good defense." Still, Goddad, who began his career as a Democratic consultant, says there are some positions his firm will not take. Nor does he try to have a secretive operation. Some firms doing similar work try to hide who is in their coaltions—who is paying for their ads. Goddard said it's not worth the effort; a reporter will eventually dig out the truth, causing trouble. That won't be too much of a worry this year. Health Care for America Now, the lead supporters of Obama's initiative, has a list of coalition members on its website. Conservatives for Patients Right, the most vocal group opposing the president, is just as open about its chairman, Rick Scott, warts and all. Those opponents face a tough battle creating their own Harry and Louise ad this year, Goddard said. There's just less to work against. "The Obama administration has taken a very smart approach," Goddard said, pointing out that the president has been sure to bring business and insurance leaders to the table when discussing reform. "They have not been so dogmatic in their possibilities. They've reached out to other sides and been more flexible. They've encouraged that part of the left to cool their jets a little."

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