After the election, Joyce Vansean had little trouble convincing protesters to march against Donald Trump’s travel ban. It hasn’t taken a ton of work for her to find people who will make calls to defend net neutrality.
But Vansean faces a new obstacle as she tries mounting opposition to Senate Republicans’ bill to repeal Obamacare — the bill is being kept secret, so no one knows what could happen.
On concrete issues like the travel ban and net neutrality, “you could tell people, ‘This is what Washington is doing, so this is what you need to do to prevent it,’” said Vansean, co-founder of the New Orleans chapter for Indivisible, an anti-Trump resistance organization.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) plans to keep the legislation closely guarded until right before the vote, meaning there will be no public hearings, limited debate, and possibly no Congressional Budget Office score before it is a presidential signature away from becoming law.
McConnell’s unprecedented legislative chicanery has drawn howls of protest from the media and Democrats. But across the country, the procedural hardball is kneecapping the resistance’s anti-Trumpcare push by keeping the health bill out of the headlines — and, to some extent, the protests against it off the streets.
“It’s really hard to motivate people to show up and be angry when they don’t know what they’re objecting to. We literally don’t have enough information to motivate people,” Vansean told me. “It’s like trying to tackle a football player made of air. How can you do that without falling on your face?”
The American people are “in the dark” about what’s going on with health care
Activists say Senate Republicans have them in a bind. McConnell is planning on voting on the health care bill in the next two weeks, so they have to mobilize now if they’re going to make an impact. But that means they’re protesting against something that doesn’t exist, and that the media isn’t covering as an imminent, urgent controversy — so the public isn’t becoming widely aware of it.
Lara Crigger, head of the Indivisible chapter in Metairie, Louisiana, has spent months doing something to fight Trumpcare. But she realized Thursday night that not even her husband, who she described as an “avid news junkie,” knew the Senate was expected to vote on the bill this month. (New reporting suggests the Senate might not meet that deadline.)
“Pretty much anybody you talk to outside Indivisible or a congressional office is in the dark. I think unless you’re in front of it day in and day out, you only think about it when it’s a leading headline, and then it quickly fades,” she said.
All of the organizers interviewed for this story described this same reality in their districts. The hardcore activists, and most committed volunteers, are more fired up about figuring out how to defeat the bill than they’ve ever been.
But there appears to be a drop-off in the intensity of opposition to the health care bill in the wider public arena, particularly compared to the run-up to Speaker Paul Ryan’s first failed effort to pass the health care bill in March. That effort led Ryan’s vote to fail on the floor amid a torrent of protests, furious town halls, and congressional phone lines jammed with calls.
Dozens of protests and calls are also scheduled for this time around. But a creeping fear among activists is that the national opposition to the bill, while real, won’t register in the public mind until after it’s too late. That’s particularly worrisome for them because Republican senators won’t have any town halls until after the July 4th recess that is the deadline for this bill.
They are convinced that the bill, seen in full light, will prove wildly unpopular and spur massive resistance. They’re just worried it won’t be fully seen in time to stop it.
“Nobody is talking about it,” said Tudor Popescu, a community organizer with an Indivisible group in California’s 43th Congressional district, with frustration in his voice. “The sense of urgency is very strong among our Indivisible group. But outside of that, we need to do more.”
Trying to get the media to focus on the health care bill
Another problem facing resistance foot-soldiers is that the media has not treated the Senate bill with the urgency it treated the initial House legislation.
This week, for three straight days, none of four of the biggest newspapers in America put the health care bill on their front pages — thanks largely to new revelations in the investigation into Trumpworld’s connections to Russia. Talk of the Republican health plan on cable news has slowed to a trickle, according to data from IQ Media.
In the Capitol on Thursday, Senate Democrats raged against the media’s inattention to the imminent threat posed by the Republican health bill. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) said he had started responding to reporters’ questions about Russia by answering about the health bill. Asked to explain his plan for defeating Trumpcare, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) focused on the importance of convincing the media to take the issue more seriously.
“What we’re beginning is an effort to say to the media, ‘Don’t allow [Trump’s] tweets to distract you from the actual Trump agenda,” Markey told me. “We hope we can redirect the attention of those who write the front pages and the editorials. Because so far, they’ve been missing the biggest story of 2017 — the destruction of the Affordable Care Act.”
But McConnell’s condensed schedule is cutting the resistance’s legs out from under them.
Just compare the process for passing AHCA with that for passing Obamacare. As that bill was being drafted, the Senate HELP Committee held 14 bipartisan roundtables and 13 public hearings in 2008 and 2009. The Center for American Progress’ Topher Spiro detailed in the Washington Post that Democrats accepted more than 160 Republican amendments to the bill in June 2009.
The Senate Finance Committee held 17 public events and hearings. Democrats negotiated with Republicans for months. Then there were Congressional Budget Office scores that appeared before Congress voted on the bill. Vox’s Sarah Kliff Obama recalls just how extensive the debate was.
All of these procedural points (and others) created chokepoints that allowed the Republicans to stir up opposition to the law. This time, McConnell rewrote the normal rules of legislating to instead blow right past them.
And it’s keeping people distracted. From his home in rural Kentucky, Robert Miracle told Vox that only a few of his friends and family are taking seriously the prospect that Trump will sign a bill that results in millions fewer people having insurance.
Instead, Miracle’s relatives are digesting a torrent of coverage of the Russia scandal that they regard as “BS.” In part because they don’t see it in the media, fewer people are heeding his calls to write the state’s Republican senators to urge them not to vote for AHCA.
“Both of my brothers think the Russia stuff is not a big deal and all blown up. They turn on the TV and don't see anything about health care, and they don't believe that they'll go through with it,’” Miracle, 58, told me.
By the time they do, he worries, they’ll already have passed the bill.
“Activism fatigue” begins to set in
Beyond the media coverage, activists on the ground said that the people they’re trying to reach sound like they’re already burned out by exhaustion.
“There’s a little bit of activism fatigue happening here. It’s fucking hot. It’s June. People are traveling. It’s summer vacation,” Crigger told me. “June in Louisiana is not the best time to go out on a sidewalk for an hour and a half.”
Others activists have similar stories. “There’s a lot of exhaustion. That’s part of the strategy — to exhaust the hell out of us and make us tired of fighting,” said Vansean, of Indivisible New Orleans. “How many marches can you go to before the media says, ‘Eh, it’s another march, who cares?’”
The resistance leaders say they’re moving as quickly as possible. There are at least seven direct actions planned at the offices of seven Republican senators on Friday alone. Planned Parenthood, MoveOn, UltraViolet, and other liberal groups have other events planned for this weekend and next. On Wednesday, protesters delivered 185 waffles to the offices of Sen. Shelly Capito (R-WV) because of the 185,000 Medicaid beneficiaries in the state at risk “because of her waffling.”
“The fact that Republican senators haven’t been willing to show the public what they’re actually negotiating over is frustrating folks who are very concerned, but I don’t think it’s tempering their opposition,” said Claire McAndrew, director of Campaign Strategy at Families USA.
Laureen King, 58, of Portland, Oregon, has tried calling at least 10 different senators every week since Trump’s inauguration. On Thursday, she left voicemails with the 10 Republicans senators to voice her opposition to the health care bill.
But King was discouraged this week by a Facebook post indicating that the number of activist phone calls had begun to dwindle. “A lot of people who were very vocal are not very vocal anymore, because they feel like their voice is not being heard. So they begin to wonder, ‘What’s the point?’” she said.
“I say to them, ‘Get some perspective, and some peace, and take your time. But when you’re ready, please come back. Come back. Come back and help. It’s just so important.’”