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Hope vs Power: The PhRMA Deal That Was and the OFA Campaign That Wasn't

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, February 24 2010

"These dudes are old school communications people. They're playing the game the way they know how because it's been lucrative for them. And they're destroying the whole promise of the Obama Administration in the process."

With the White House tabling a new hybrid health care reform proposal that, intriguingly, no longer appears to contain the infamous deal cut with the pharmaceutical industry to block efforts to allow cheaper drugs into the country in exchange for $80 billion in promised costs savings and a massive industry advertising campaign in favor of reform, it's worth asking whether that very deal, which reached intimately toward the pockets of two top White House advisers, had a subtle effect on how the White House imagined its political options over the course of last year's health care fight. This is just speculation, folks, but imagine if Obama had mobilized Organizing for America from the very beginning as a battering ram to confront PhRMA and its allies in Congress head on, rather than keeping the massive online group in a holding pen until the summer while cutting deals from an assumed position of weakness and the need for inside deal-making. Is it crazy to ponder this scenario? I don't think so, especially after getting this email from a knowledgeable insider:

This is really bothering me:

On April 15, Jim Messina and Jon Selib, chief of staff to Senate
Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus, convened a meeting at the headquarters of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) with leaders of organized labor and health care groups, including PhRMA. At the meeting, the groups decided to form two nonprofit entities to promote reform efforts, Healthy Economy Now and Americans for Stable Quality Care, that would be almost entirely funded by PhRMA. The two groups spent $24 million on their advertising campaigns; the contract to produce and place ads went to White House Senior Advisor David Axelrod’s former firm, AKPD, which owed Axelrod
$2 million.

Is there a piece to be done that really analyzes the assumptions that went into that deal? First of all, how much of an impact would a PhRMA advertising campaign against health care have had? Would Harry and Louise have the same power in today's media environment?

What if the White House/OFA had said, let's fight their air war with our ground troops -- and used new media/field organizing to rally public opinion and neutralize PhRMA's advertising?

By the way, how did those ads turn out? Did they have any effect? What did $24 million get them? What could $24 million spent on new media and field organizing have gotten the White House?

Are the people in charge at the White House working under outdated assumptions about media (the power of television advertising vs. new media?) Are they afraid for the future of the AKPD business model if they don't work under those assumptions?

In fact, has anyone done a comprehensive study about the effect of tv paid advertising vs. new media during the campaign? I'd be very interested...

And another thing... The piece doesn't even mention that David Plouffe would have personally benefited from this deal as a partner at AKPD. How did that impact his judgment when it came to consulting on OFA's strategy for passing health care reform? He was literally being paid to produce a result that conformed with the PhRMA White House deal, not to mobilize people to push for the best reform possible.

And what did the American people get out of this deal? We didn't have to watch anti-health care ads paid for by PhRMA? That most people would have skipped over on their DVRs anyway? And some nebulous cost savings?

To my knowledge, HHS still doesn't have a Director of New Media. [Actually, they recently hired a terrific person, Julia Eisman from Families USA.] And I don't believe there's a Director of New Media in the White House Office of Health Reform either.

These dudes are old school communications people. They're playing the game the way they know how because it's been lucrative for them. And they're destroying the whole promise of the Obama Administration in the process.

[Full disclosure: I am a senior advisor to the Sunlight Foundation, which published staffer Paul Blumenthal's posts linked to above about Billy Tauzin and the PhRMA deal.]

Photo taken last week in Providence, RI.