BOB GARFIELD: Remember Harry and Louise? They first emerged in 1993 in ads opposing the Clinton administration’s plan for health care reform. They really worried about health care. [CLIP]: LOUISE: But this was covered under our old plan. HARRY: Oh yeah, that was a good one, wasn’t it? [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: Well, last week, Harry and Louise returned to the small screen, and they're as anxious as ever. [CLIP]: HARRY: Health care costs are up again. Small companies are being forced to cut their plans. LOUISE: Tell me about it. [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: During the Clinton era health care reform debates, Harry and Louise reckoned the problem was government bureaucrats. [CLIP]: Yeah, they choose.
LOUISE: And we lose. [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: Now, 15 years later, they just can't wait for Washington to get its hands on health care. [CLIP]: LOUISE: Whoever the next president is, health care should be at the top of his agenda. [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: Harry and Louise used to be the hired guns of the health insurance and small business lobbies. Now they answer to the other side, a coalition of groups led by Families USA. WNYC’s Fred Mogul takes a look. FRED MOGUL: They're a dream couple but their new sponsors are strange bedfellows. Families USA, a consumer advocacy group, is sharing credit with the National Federation of Independent Business, one of the original Clinton-bashing Harry and Louise backers. Also on the team are two major hospital trade groups and the patient-oriented American Cancer Society. Each has a competing approach to getting people health coverage.
Together, they're a little bit like a resurrected reunion tour comprised of the Carpenters, Led Zeppelin and Liberace. Ron Pollack of Families USA. RON POLLACK: I think this is a sign that more and more organizations are prepared to work together because the health care crisis has grown so substantially. FRED MOGUL: It’s not exactly clear what he means by “work together.” Though these lobbies didn't mention it when they launched the ad earlier this month, several of them have been meeting to hammer out differences on and off for years while the number of uninsured Americans continues to climb.
They typically agree on some broad goals, like making sure everyone has health insurance, without resolving the thornier specifics, like what to do about individuals with pre-existing conditions. Their ad has only one simple call to action. [CLIP]: LOUISE: Whoever the next president is, health care should be at the top of his agenda. Bring everyone to the table and make it happen. [END CLIP] MOLLYANN BRODIE: Americans are ultimately really nice people. They want to make sure people have coverage who don't have health insurance coverage. FRED MOGUL: Mollyann Brodie follows public opinion in health care policy for the Kaiser Family Foundation. MOLLYANN BRODIE: The hard part breaks down when it comes to trying to figure out the best solution to those goals. FRED MOGUL: Brodie says the ad is a reflection of the anxiety shared by these often conflicting groups that their issue is being eclipsed. In a recent Gallup Poll, health care lost its gold medal spot as America’s top worry, falling slightly behind the economy for a close silver. Throw in gas prices and Iraq, and the question is: MOLLYANN BRODIE: Is there a chance that the focus on health care reform, could that fall off the public agenda? FRED MOGUL: The new ad sponsors were open about this concern at the press conference. What they didn't acknowledge was that the plotline of Harry and Louise Return, and this time they're for government reform, is itself a rerun from eight years ago.
As those presidential primaries were getting underway, the couple briefly appeared in support of Clinton initiatives to expand coverage for the poor, with 30 billion dollars worth of tax credits. News reports at the time played up the couple’s surprising shift toward government-oriented health care.
But Slate columnist Timothy Noah says it wasn't really a surprise, not then and not now. TIMOTHY NOAH: They were never anti-government, per se. They were anti-regulation. They were very much in favor of any scheme that would subsidize the insurance industry. The insurers weren't really giving a lot up because these were people who, by definition, couldn't afford health insurance on their own, and they also were more likely to be unhealthy. So they didn't present themselves as terribly promising customers. FRED MOGUL: The ad eight years ago was much smaller and came at a much less dramatic moment than the 1993 campaign, but it did spark a brief spate of news stories. Still, that revival was quickly forgotten, so that by last weekend’s re-reemergence, most stories read or sounded like this one on CBS. MALE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Harry and Louise are back but this time Wyatt Andrews reports they're on the other side of the issue. FRED MOGUL: It’s certainly a time-honored way of amplifying a low-budgeted limited release ad. Make it news. Dusting off the Harry and Louise brand and pretending it’s the first time they've surfaced in 15 years has worked like a charm. RON POLLACK: Obviously, a lot of people in the American public still know of Harry and Louise and actually enjoy the irony that now they are supporting health care reform. FRED MOGUL: Ron Pollack of Families USA. RON POLLACK: We were pretty confident that we would get a great deal of free or some people called it earned media over and above the paid media through our advertising. And, indeed, that was the case. FRED MOGUL: So the ironic twist of Harry and Louise’s conversion from bane of reform to booster was really business as usual. Perhaps the real irony is that the media fell for it again and missed the chance to ask what reform might really look like, what each of the ad sponsors really wants and what keeps them, and us, from getting a solution. For On the Media, I'm Fred Mogul.