One unsung reason the Republicans failed in their seven-year quest to kill Obama’s signature legacy is that the left went all tea party on them.
Betty Koenig’s no registered lobbyist. She’s a 72-year-old nurse in Redmond who, when I spoke with her, begged off early for a more pressing appointment: driving her granddaughter to work.
She also happens to have Mitch McConnell’s office on speed dial.
“I called him four times this week,” Betty told me, referring to the U.S. Senate majority leader, who represents a state 2,000 miles away. “I have his back line office number, so his staff always answers it.
“I’m a born New Yorker. I tell it to them straight.”
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Obamacare lives on, at least for now. Though it’s impossible to know what precisely saved the Affordable Care Act from the Republicans’ seven-year quest to kill it, Koenig, and millions like her, are surely one of the unsung reasons why.
Koenig is not with any organized effort. Yet in an almost daily ritual of protest, she has been calling members of Congress the past few months (always only reaching a staffer.) Congressman Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, got a slew of calls. Ditto U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan. Lately she’s been phone-focused on McConnell and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.
“I called Murkowski again today,” Koenig said Friday. “To thank her.”
Koenig is part of what The New Yorker magazine recently called an “unprecedented level of citizen engagement going on outside the Beltway that Congress has never experienced before.”
The U.S. Senate has at times been getting 1.5 million phone calls per day, the busiest in the history of the Capitol switchboard. Lots of that was driven by organized activism and technology. But some of it, as with Koenig, was simply organic.
“I would just get mad at the thought of them cutting millions off insurance,” Koenig said. “I’m a nurse, so that was my pitch. I would say: ‘What are you going to tell the people you’re cutting off insurance? You can’t just sweep them all under the rug.’ ”
Frank Greer, a Seattle-based national political consultant, says that before the House’s surprising passage of an Obamacare repeal bill in May, it was a “bit lonely on the front lines” of the health-care fight.
“But there was this incredible mobilization, from people calling senators to targeted advertising to marches, protests, office sit-ins,” Greer said. “You had congressmen sneaking out the back door of offices all over the country.”
He also says the GOP’s obsession with defunding Planned Parenthood was a major blunder. It was so important to them that of the stripped-down final eight-page health bill, 2 ½ pages were devoted to axing Planned Parenthood. That irked both Murkowski and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, two of the three GOP “no” votes Friday morning (Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was the other.)
“The attack on Planned Parenthood energized millions of women to fight,” Greer said. “That’s the story in the end. Women won this battle.”
Jonathan Chait, author of the 2017 book “Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Created a Legacy That Will Prevail,” wrote Friday that this movement to save Obamacare is historic, an Exhibit A for his book’s subtitle.
Obama transformed a “politically voiceless group” — the uninsured — into a constituency. So when the GOP tried to cut them off, especially after ridiculously overpromising insurance for everyone, “the outpouring of political organizing to save the law shocked its would-be repealers,” he wrote.
That organizing included people in the trenches of health care. About every major medical group in the country denounced the GOP plans. The comments last month of a single Seattle physician, Ben Danielson of Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic, were viewed on The Seattle Times website more than 150,000 times. I heard about it from readers across the country. That kind of viral dissent, by the people who most know what they’re talking about, mattered.
Says Betty Koenig: “I learned in high school that civics isn’t just voting every four years.”
Cynicism about government is rampant — and for good reason. It’s a sign of how damaged Congress is that a bill everybody hated, including the senators themselves, still fell only a vote short of passing.
But Koenig’s right. What just happened was ugly. Maddening. There’s gotta be a better way. In the end, it’s also what democracy looks like.