Harry and Louise staged a comeback this morning at Washington's National Press Club. Where the hell were they when we needed them?
Harry Johnson and Louise Caire Clark starred in a famous $14 million TV campaign sponsored by the Health Insurance Association of America in 1993 and 1994 that helped kill off Bill and Hillary Clinton's proposed health care reform bill. The actors played an ordinary-looking married couple poring over medical bills at the kitchen table. "I thought this was covered under our old plan," Louise moaned in the best-known spot. "Having choices we don't like is no choice at all."
"They choose," Harry agreed.
"We lose," replied Louise.
The most infuriating thing about this ad was its failure to recognize that in a democracy, government is not supposed to be a "we-they" proposition. If you feel it's become one, then you have a responsibility to do more than piss and moan in your kitchen. A better example of a "we-they" relationship would be that of the medical patient to his health insurer. Indeed, if you were to air this commercial today minus the voiceover ("The government may force us to pick from a few health care plans designed by government bureaucrats"), it would never occur to TV viewers that Harry and Louise were talking about anyone other than their health insurers.
The new ad, which will air during the conventions, puts Harry and Louise back at the kitchen table, but this time, Harry begins by complaining that rising health care costs have got small companies cutting their plans. (They've got big companies cutting plans, too, but this goes unmentioned.) "You know, Lisa's husband just found out he has cancer," Louise says. Harry looks shocked. "But he's covered, right?"
"No, he just joined a startup, and he can't afford a plan."
Harry shakes his head gravely. "Too many people are falling through the cracks."
"Whoever the next president is, health care should be at the top of his agenda. Bring everyone to the table. Make it happen."
Setting aside Harry's troubling lack of interest in the prognosis for Lisa's husband, I find it hard to forgive these (admittedly fictional) people for showing not the vaguest understanding, much less regret, that they helped bring about the current health care crisis. Nor has the couple any clue about how to fix it. They talked a better game in 2000, when HIAA brought them back to tout InsureUSA, a plan to extend coverage to the uninsured through $30 billion a year in tax credits:
Harry: News on the Web?
Louise: Forty-four million Americans without health insurance.
Harry: That's huge, an epidemic.
Louise: That only coverage can cure.
Harry: We can't leave working families and kids without insurance!
"Uh oh," quipped CNN's William Schneider. "Sounds like Harry and Louise have gone liberal on us." In truth, Harry and Louise (i.e., the health insurers) had never opposed government subsidies, which was what InsureUSA amounted to. What industry in its right mind would refuse a government handout? Rather, Harry and Louise had opposed government regulation. They still did, the ad's conclusion made clear:
Louise: Well, someone actually has a workable plan, called InsureUSA. It has tax relief for workers and small businesses, and special help for the working poor.
Harry: But not government-run health care.
Louise: I'm e-mailing this to the candidates!
Harry and Louise were more petulant than their creators in refusing to accept responsibility as the price of privilege. By 2000, when this ad ran, the HIAA had given its support to a Clinton proposal to expand coverage somewhat under two "government-run" poverty programs, Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program. It was a smart move, earning goodwill from the public while sacrificing little or nothing. The people to whom government insurance would be extended were by definition too poor to become paying customers. Even if they could scrape the money together for a private policy, their low economic status made them relatively poor prospects because they were likelier to experience bad health than more privileged folks like, well, Harry and Louise.
Harry and Louise sat down at their kitchen table again in 2002 to oppose the Bush administration's attempt to ban all forms of human cloning. "One bill puts scientists in jail for working to cure our niece's diabetes," Louise complained. (By now it was clear that, for all their bitching, Harry and Louise had no children of their own to worry about.) "So … cure cancer, go to jail?" Harry replied. Even for a stem-cell supporter like me, this discussion seems short on nuance. Perhaps you're wondering why health insurers would go to bat for research that, if successful, would likely increase medical costs (and, therefore, spending by insurance companies). Answer: They weren't. The ad was sponsored by a nonprofit group called CuresNow. Harry and Louise were freelancing. HIAA, which didn't like losing control over its favorite propagandists, sued but failed to halt the ad campaign.
The newest Harry and Louise ad is another freelance job. This time, the sponsor is FamiliesUSA, a nonprofit that has long pushed for universal health care, in conjunction with the American Hospital Association, the Catholic Health Association of the United States, the American Cancer Society's Cancer Action Network, and the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which represents small business. The NFIB, which in the past has opposed regulation more fervently than other business groups—and which opposed Hillarycare in 1994—has finally woken up to the fact that its members are far likelier to consume health care than to provide it. Moreover, the new ad is so deliberately platitudinous and vague about what health care reform would actually be that it's hard to imagine what the NFIB's right flank could possibly object to.
One might similarly wonder what HIAA's successor group, America's Health Insurance Plans, could object to. AHIP's president, Karen Ignani, was present at the press conference, but her organization, which recently inaugurated its Campaign for an American Solution (read: no single-payer, thank you very much), is not a sponsor of the new ad. "We strongly support the coalition's activities," Ignani said at the press conference. When I approached her afterward, she upgraded that to "unequivocal support." Then what kept the insurers from participating in the new Harry and Louise ad? Ignani said it was "not a lack of willingness on our part," which I took to mean that she hadn't been asked. Perhaps there were worries that the health insurers would want to assert too much control over fictional characters they'd created. Or perhaps there were worries of an eventual breakup once concrete proposals replace the platitudes.
Who would get custody of Harry and Louise? Whoever could sell them on a solution that, like everything else they favor in their oeuvre, is cost-free. That's why Americans identify with them, and that's why I'd just as soon they found something else to do for the next couple of years. Time to identify with someone better.