The Senator Takes on Talking Points

The Huffington Post got it right.  Sort of. “Senator Calls Out Frank Luntz from
the SenateFloor” read a June 10 headline on the national Internet news
site.  Huffington Post’s political reporter
Sam Stein had seized on a short speech that Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley made
on the Senate floor, attacking veteran Republican consultant Frank Luntz for
circulating twenty-five pages of talking points to be used against any health
care legislation the Democrats might offer up. 

The memo drew on extensive polling and identified inflammatory
language that could be used to undermine health care.  Turning out this quality material has been Luntz’s
métier since he helped Newt Gingrich draft the Contract with America in 1994. And
it is, in fact, unusual for a senator to stand in the well of the Senate and
critique a memo written by a political consultant. 

If the Huffington Post was close, the more obscure Loaded
Orygun was spot on.  The regional
Internet site that “delivers the straight scoop on news, politics and other
cool happenings around the state of Oregon” focused on what editors call the
“so what” of a story: a senator with four months of seniority had stepped up to
the lectern in the Senate chamber and attacked the minority leader who had been
a member of the club for twenty-five years.  And pulled no punches.

Loaded Orygun blogger “Torridjoe” was so taken with Merkley’s
three-minute speech that he apologized for his earlier lack of enthusiasm. “The
word ‘milquetoast’ got a lot of use on Merkley, by me as much as anyone,”
Torridjoe wrote.

“So, so wrong.”

He went on to praise Merkley for “a devastating critique of
both Frank Luntz for offering health reform-killing talking points designed to
scare … and the Minority Leader of the Senate Mitch McConnell, for taking the
points and running with them.”

Merkley—who spent eight years in the minority of the Oregon
House and two years as its speaker—has never been known for his oratorical
skills.  Yet he vindicated himself on the
floor of the Senate when he used the Luntz memo to challenge the Republican
majority leader’s integrity:

Frank Luntz’s memo on
how to kill health care came out in April. It says–talking point number five: “Health
care denial horror stories from Canada and other countries do resonate, but you
have to humanize them.  We recommend the
phrase ‘government takeover’ rather than ‘government run’ or ‘government control.’”

Why? Because
government takeover sounds even scarier.  So what did we hear in the chamber from our
minority leader just recently?  I quote:
“Americans are concerned about a government takeover of health care and for
good reason.” 

Let’s take a look at
another example: “Time is a government health care killer, nothing else turns
people against government takeover of health care more than the expectation
that this plan will result in delayed and denied treatment. …” I’ll note that
this is about a plan that wasn’t written. It’s about any plan put forward.  The arguments against this plan must center
around politicians, bureaucrats in Washington. …” 

And what have we heard
on the floor of this chamber from the minority leader? 

“Americans don’t want
to be forced by bureaucrats,” that comes right out of the talking points, “to
give up their private health care plan to be pushed into a Washington-run
government plan.”  Right out of those
talking points.  “They don’t want to wait
two years for surgery.  And they don’t
want to be told they’re too old for surgery.”  All of this straight out of this road map. 

My friends, it is
irresponsible in the face of 50 million Americans without health care, with
working Americans in every one of our states going bankrupt as they struggle
with health care expenses.  It’s
irresponsible to utilize a road map of rhetoric that comes from polling about
how to scare people.

That’s irresponsible.

OFF THE BENCH—If Jeff Merkley was an unlikely senator to call out the minority leader,
he was also an unlikely candidate to take down Gordon Smith, who had
represented Oregon in the Senate since 1996 and won his last election by a 16
percent margin.  Former Democratic
Governor John Kitzhaber would have been a stronger candidate.  Veteran Democrats in the congressional
delegation, Peter DeFazio and Earl Blumenauer, had decades of experience in
Washington and high name recognition in a state with only five congressional
districts.  Yet none of the party’s big names
entered the race.

 “He knew he was the fifth
choice and was hoping that a bigger name would step up and take on Senator
Smith,”said Michael Zamore, who was working for the Democratic Senatorial
Campaign Committee (DSCC) when Merkley emerged as the default candidate.  (Zamore now works on Merkley’s staff.)

 Merkley traveled to
Washington to meet with New York Senator Chuck Schumer, who chaired the DSCC
and urged Merkley to join the race. 

The DSCC even got involved in the Oregon primary, to ensure
that Merkley, and not Steve Novick, would be the party’s candidate in November.
 Novick, who as a young Department of
Justice lawyer litigated the historic Love Canal lawsuit, is a progressive environmental
lawyer and political activist with a resume that appealed to liberal Democrats.

CADILLAC CAMPAIGN—Once the intramural contest was decided, the DSCC gave it up
for Merkley. The committee’s $11.6 million—more than it spent on any other race
in 2008 and more than each of the candidates individually spent in
Oregon—contributed to the most expensive Senate campaign in the state’s
history.  Almost $50 million was spent by
the candidates, the two Senate committees, and advocacy groups—in a race in
which only 1.6 million votes were cast, and that Merkley won by 40,000

Merkley was one of ten candidates who got substantial support
from the DSCC, which outspent the National Republican Senatorial Committee
$155.7 million to $90.6 million.  If DSCC
spending in the 2008 Senate races provided a civics-book case for campaign
finance reform, it also produced a remarkable freshman class that includes Mark
Begich (AK), Mark Udall (CO), Al Franken (MN), Jeanne Shaheen (NH), and Kay
Hagan (NC). Like Merkley, Begich, Franken and Hagan defeated incumbents. 

Did the committee get a bang for the eleven million bucks it
spent in Oregon?

The Senate race—and the Obama candidacy—altered the
political dynamics of the state, according to the Oregon Democratic Party’s
executive director Trent Lutz.  Lutz said
the party registered 250,000 new voters in a state with 2 million registered
voters, moving from something close to parity with Republicans to a 4 percent
to 5 percent lead.

And the senator himself?

He voted to curtail funding for the F-22 fighter jet, a defense
contractors’ perennial pork barrel project described in these pages (“Bob Gates
vs. Lockheed Martin,” Washington Spectator, April 15, 2009). 

He co-sponsored, with the late Senator Ted Kennedy, the Matthew
Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, anathema to blogosphere wingnuts and talk
radio windbags because it provides legal protections for gays and

He pressed Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to direct the
Treasury to auction warrants that banks exchanged with the Treasury when they
took bailout money, rather than selling them back to the banks at a discount. 

Merkley was also on the losing end of one well-intentioned fight
on the floor, where as a member of the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs
Committee he supported an amendment that would have allowed homeowners facing foreclosure
to negotiate with lenders to reduce monthly mortgage payments.

(This is not to suggest a perfect legislative record.  Merkley’s vote for a Tom Coburn (R-OK)
amendment that will now allow individuals to carry guns in national parks is
hard to explain—in particular to park rangers trying to enforce the law in the

Besides being a standup guy on the floor of the Senate, Merkley
has embraced health care reform.  He
amended the bill reported out of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions
Committee on which he serves, to expand the number of small businesses included
in insurance “gateways” created to enhance the bargaining power of small
businesses and individuals shopping for private health insurance. 

More important, Merkley is a resolute supporter of the “public
option,” a government-run health insurance provider that would compete with private
companies. He is one of sixteen senators who signed a letter sent to the
Democratic chairs of the two Senate committees drafting health care bills, Ted
Kennedy (MA) and Max Baucus (MT), arguing the merits of a government-run
insurance program.

Mark Udall, Al Franken, Jeanne Shaheen, and Kay Hagan have
since come out in support of the public option—considered to be the best
mechanism to bring down insurance premiums and extend coverage to the
uninsured.  Of the freshman Senators
carried into office by DSCC funding, only Alaska’s Begich hasn’t signed on with
the public option.

The other committee assignment Merkley requested, Environment
and Public Works, places him in the eye of the second legislative storm that
will move through the Senate this fall: the cap and trade climate bill that the
House passed before the August recess. 

In Oregon Merkley was elected speaker of the House as the
Democrats took control of both chambers of the legislature for the first time
in sixteen years. House and Senate leaders moved a backlog of progressive
legislation, much of it environmental.  As
a candidate for the U.S. Senate, Merkley ran with a 96 percent rating from the
Oregon League of Conservation Voters (plus $250,000 in contributions), according
to executive director Jonathan Poisner. 

Asked about his position on the cap and trade bill, Merkley
begins with a survey of geologic time: four 280-parts-per-million spikes of
carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over the past 400,000 years, and the burning
of coal and gas for energy now has us at 380 parts-per-billion and climbing.  “It’s well established that carbon dioxide, as
well as increases in methane gas, trap heat,” he said. “You can see evidence in
the Arctic and the Antarctic, warming of the ocean, the melting Greenland Ice
Sheet and with the thawing of the permafrost.…This is a real stewardship issue
for our planet and I think we need to be very aggressive in taking on carbon
dioxide and other global warming gases.” 

Merkley would like to see more “integrity in the offsets” in
the cap and trade bill and would prefer to separate the efficiency component
from the renewable energy component.  It appears
he will be a solid vote for the bill.

—I began following Merkley as he traveled to
four town halls in Oregon in early August, just as the right wing began to turn
the meetings into angry spectacles (see “Preying on Fear and Predicting the
Final Solution,” Washington Spectator September 1, 2009).  Addressing a crowd, Merkley is unprepossessing
and earnest almost to a fault—more like a high school civics teacher than a
United States senator. 

At the town hall meetings, the senator fielded questions that
ranged from reasonable to absurd with the same focus, nodding and politely
listening (even as a woman warned of a Nazi plot to euthanize older Americans
and said she feared that Barack Obama might hasten biblical prophecies of the end
of the world.)

When I asked Merkley about the scripted and choreographed dissenters
disrupting meetings across the country, he paused.  “There are forces who are determined to stop health
care even if it means misleading people,” he said.  He returned to the Luntz memo. “That memo
really laid out that their goal was to destroy health care reform.… It wasn’t
an honest discussion about health care issues.”

DEFENDING THE PUBLIC OPTION—He said he is still committed to
a public option that would compete with private insurers.  (The bill that was voted out of the Health, Education,
Labor and Pensions Committee includes a public option.)  And that he has a responsibility to “clear up the
myths that some of these people are putting out there.”  Merkley has scheduled another ten town hall
meetings for September.  As Molly Ivins
often observed, some people know how to have a good time. 

None of this is to suggest that one junior Democratic
senator can make an honest legislator out of Mitch McConnell or turn the health
care debate in a different direction.  Yet
early on, the junior senator from Oregon got it right.  Congressional Republicans long ago made a decision
on health care reform; as a result are they are now engaged in a carefully
plotted program of delay and deceit. “Their underlying position is weak,” he
said in an interview, “so they have to mislead people to try to have an
effective voice.” 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has made it clear that
legislation coming out of the House will include a public option.  So as the Congress reconvenes, we approach
gut-check time for Senate Democrats.  The
argument that Jeff Merkley made on the Senate floor at the beginning of summer
suggests what we should be watching for at the beginning of fall.  Will it occur to Senate Democrats that
standing up in defiance of a Republican minority using deceit and fear to kill
legislation might be both good policy and good politics?