During the Clinton administration's health care battles 15 years ago, party leaders largely left the ad and lobbying offensive to insurance and business players. This time around, the political parties are weighing in -- not just with ads, but with aggressive grassroots organizing campaigns that include door-knocking, robo-calls, mass e-mails and tele-town halls.
The shift reflects not just the high political stakes of the health care debate, but party officials' growing eagerness to weigh in on policy issues as well as elections. The Republican National Committee has even filed suit to press for the right to spend unregulated money on issue campaigns as well as on non-federal races. That case, RNC v. FEC, will be argued in federal court later this month and will likely land in the lap of the Supreme Court.
In the meantime, both political parties have thrown themselves into the health care fray. The Democratic National Committee paid for two rounds of TV ads in July and recently announced a flight of radio ads that will air in August.
The DNC is also reaching out to activists with door-knocking, canvassing, phone banks, letter-writing and e-mails. It's a crucial test of Organizing for America, the grassroots group now housed at the DNC that inherited some 13 million e-mail addresses from President Obama's campaign.
In the wake of the presidential election, some industry lobbyists regarded that list with trepidation. But so far, Organizing for America has been has been slow to build a national infrastructure and has been overshadowed by raucous conservative activists. Though Democrats dismiss recent town hall theatrics as orchestrated, polls suggest voters are increasingly ambivalent about a proposed health care overhaul.
Also attempting to help Obama regain the offensive is the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has mounted a month-long campaign aimed at more than two dozen Republican House members. It's part of what the DCCC calls its "Health Care ER" campaign, which includes radio ads in eight GOP districts, automated and live calls to 25 Republican House members, and 3 million e-mail messages.
"Democrats are going on offense," declared one party strategist, who added: "This is unprecedented for Democrats."
On the GOP side, the RNC has pledged to invest about $1 million in "aggressive activity that takes place over recess," said spokeswoman Gail Gitcho. The RNC launched TV ads in Nevada, North Dakota and Arkansas on July 20, and a week later unveiled a radio ad campaign targeting 60 congressional Democrats in 33 states.
The National Republican Congressional Committee also will hit the airwaves soon as part of its own multi-pronged health care campaign. "It will probably be a combination of TV, radio, phone calls and Web ads," said NRCC spokesman Paul Lindsay, who declined to elaborate.
"It's a sign of the political polarization that we face," said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. "Parties have jumped into issue advocacy as a way to distinguish themselves from the opposition."
Also driving the trend is the massive sums party committees continue to raise, notwithstanding the ban on soft, unregulated money ushered in with the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act in 2002. Despite predictions that the soft money ban would decimate the parties, they raised more collectively in the 2007-2008 cycle -- $1.6 billion, according to the Federal Election Commission -- than they did with the help of soft money in the 2001-2002 election.
The only difference is that, as a whole, Democrats are now raising more than Republicans. (In the first half of this year, the Democratic party committees pulled in $123.3 million, compared with $115.5 million collected by the GOP committees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.)
That helps explain why the Republican Party, in its RNC v. FEC lawsuit, is challenging the soft money ban in federal court. In part, the RNC argues that it should be permitted to raise soft money for a "grassroots lobbying account," because its activities promoting policy issues are unrelated to federal elections.
The RNC challenge threatens to knock out one of the central pillars of the landmark 2002 law, campaign finance reform advocates warn. A three-judge federal panel will hear oral arguments in the case on August 27.
Its next likely stop will be the Supreme Court, which under Chief Justice John Roberts appears increasingly willing to reconsider -- and possibly throw out -- existing campaign finance rules. Should the RNC prevail, it would open the floodgates to even more political party issue ads. Either way, predicts West, the trend is likely to continue beyond the health care debate.
"I think what we're seeing on health care is the battle plan for the future," he said. "You could see the same thing on climate change, immigration reform and the federal budget deficit. Any issue that is of great interest to the public is ripe for an issue campaign."