Lisa Murkowski and the power of story

Stories may have saved my life. Millions of people’s lives. So if you’ll forgive one more blog about the healthcare debate—well, debate isn’t the right word since there were no hearings. But you know what I’m talking about. The power of story stiffened some Republican backbones. In this case, Senator Lisa Murkowski‘s.

Lisa Murkowski

Back in early June, Topher Spiro of the Center for American Progress tweeted this excerpt from an unidentified article about a story one constituent told Murkowski. The senator recounted it to the press:

“She just needs to focus on getting her body whole, but she’s got another series (of treatments) to come up and she was saying, I can’t focus on myself … because I’m so worried that something’s going to happen to my health care and I will be labeled with a pre-existing condition and I’m never going to be able to get healthcare again,” Murkowski said. “It’s these types of stories that remind me that, no, the importance of a timeline is not nearly as important as getting this right.”

We don’t have the actual story the cancer patient told to the senator. But look at what Lisa Murkowski retained of it:

  • I’m worried
  • I can’t focus on getting well
  • Afraid of losing my healthcare
  • Afraid of being labeled with a pre-existing condition

Clearly the senator connected emotionally with the story. She remembered the fear; she empathized with the woman’s need to focus on her recovery.

What if Lisa Murkowski had heard this instead?

What would have happened if the patient had said to the senator instead:

“Senator, I have cancer. Please don’t let them take away my healthcare.”

All we have in the first sentence is fact. A devastating fact—no one takes cancer lightly, not even (I suspect) a Republican. But still, there’s nothing there to connect with. No details. No emotion.

And I’d bet it would produce no action. Not even with the “please” in the request.

And while we’re on the second sentence, calls to action need to be positive. Tell someone what you want them to do, not what you don’t want them to do. So, “Please fight hard for Alaska’s cancer patients.” Or “Please tell the Senate we need coverage for pre-existing conditions.”

But whatever you do, tell a story—a specific, emotional story. Stories like that can change the world.


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Meaningless words — politics today

I try to confine my political posts to Fridays, but due to user error, my Friday blog posted yesterday. I was just going to link to it again today but then I came across a Vox article about how the current political climate has become a collection of meaningless words.

“Republicans’ Obamacare repeal drive has revealed a political system where words have no meaning”

That’s a helluva headline. And the subhed isn’t any sunnier:

This is not normal, and it is not sustainable.

Writer Ezra Klein doesn’t pull any punches

“This has been a policymaking process built, from the beginning, atop lies. Lies about what the bills do and don’t do. Lies about what is wrong with Obamacare and lies about what the GOP’s legislation would do to fix it. Lies about what Republicans are trying to achieve and lies about which problems they seek to solve.”

Lying is immoral, of course. Think about that the next time these lawmakers piously try to restrict women’s access to abortion and defund programs designed to prevent teen pregnancy. But a bigger challenge than the havoc their policies are wreaking is the havoc created by their policy-making.

meaningless wordsAs Klein notes, the political system

“…is built around the idea that the signals sent by the central players are meaningful, even if the rhetoric is often slippery.”

Politicians may spin but we can generally count on them to do something approximating what they say they will do. Klein again:

“That is not the case here.”

McConnell’s meaningless words

Klein offers some choice selections from “Restoring the Senate,” a speech Mitch McConnell gave in 2014. It includes gems like:

“…if you approach legislation without regard for the views of the other side. Without some meaningful buy-in, you guarantee a food fight. You guarantee instability and strife.”

He also bemoaned the demise of the Senate’s “vigorous committee process,” and promised he would restore it, if given the chance:

“There’s a lot of empty talk around here about the corrosive influence of partisanship. Well, if you really want to do something about it, you should support a more robust committee process. That’s the best way to end the permanent shirts against skins contest the Senate’s become. Bills should go through committee. And if Republicans are fortunate enough to gain the majority next year, they would.”

If the Democrats got the opportunity to filibuster this healthcare bill, forged “in the Majority Leader’s conference room” (a practice McConnell decried just three years ago)—if we had the opportunity to filibuster, I think they should take the floor, one after the other, and read McConnell’s words into the record. Because the things he spoke out against are a blueprint for everything he is now doing.

Meaningless words, empty gestures

John McCain, former American hero, returned early from his taxpayer-funded brain surgery and spoke passionately on the floor of the Senate about returning to the “normal order” of things—the committee process, bipartisan cooperation—the kind of utopia McConnell laid out in his 2014 speech.

Opponents of the bill needed just one vote to stop McConnell’s Motion to Proceed. McCain’s vote. In an alternate reality, we might expect him to vote against the motion. Sadly, we’re living in the reality where words have no meaning. Of course he voted Aye.
UPDATE: Except to John McCain, whose 11th hour No vote struck the final blow. Had he signaled his intention to vote No earlier, his Republican colleagues might have had time to retrench and try again. “Wait for the show,” he told a Democratic colleague as they headed to the Senate floor.

Klein concludes:

“Skepticism is healthy in politics. But this era requires more than skepticism. This is a total collapse of the credibility of all the key policymakers in the American government. Our political system is built on the assumption that words have some meaning, that the statements policymakers make have some rough correlation to the actions they will take. But here, in the era of bullshit politics, they don’t. If this becomes the new normal in policymaking, it will be disastrous.”


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“Bring enough for everybody” — healthcare and chewing gum

“Did you bring enough for everybody?”

I can still hear the disappointment in my first grade teacher’s voice when she caught someone chewing gum in class. Of course the offender didn’t have 20 sticks of gum, just a pack. But we all knew the rules: either everyone had it or no one did.

The Republicans in Congress apparently never learned that lesson. They voted yesterday to take  healthcare away from millions of currently ensured Americans. And even to gut the provisions requiring employers to provide healthcare. But they kept their own plan intact. Members of Congress and their staffers will remain safely insured, pre-existing conditions and all.

They certainly brought enough hypocrisy for everyone.

I could point to about a dozen abominations in the new bill: the “Pro-Life” party cutting insurance for babies who need care in a neo-natal intensive care unit—and insurance coverage for pregnancy, too. Domestic violence and rape become pre-existing conditions—which will no doubt result in fewer women reporting them.

How, exactly, does that make America “greater”?

Apologies for the short blog today, but you don’t want to hear the words I have in my head today.

Curses? Oh yeah, I’ve got more than enough for everybody.