The First Rule of RootsCamp

Don’t mention Obamacare.

US President Barack Obama
Let’s just not talk about that health care law, OK?

Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

It took a little while to realize that Sen. Elizabeth Warren was standing right in front of us. RootsCamp, the annual “unconference” that sequesters thousands of hopeful progressive activists in the Washington Convention Center, kicked off with an hour of punchy, concise speeches. Almost none of the press had arrived in the plenary ballroom when the freshman Massachusetts senator, the one they keep writing will-she-run-for-president tales about, got up for an unscheduled 9-minute address.

“I wanted to be with people who get things done!” said Warren. No one had announced her name, and she didn’t give it—none of that was necessary, as Warren thanked the crowd for giving her the tools to win, and to consider all that had been won in one short year.

“We’re not all the way home on anybody’s issues, but we’re holding banks a lot more accountable,” said the senator. “The student loan fight? We haven’t won it, but we have changed it—and we’re going to win it when we go forward. There have been new energy initiatives—the White House has really stepped up to the plate. We passed an immigration bill in the Senate. … We passed ENDA, for equality in the workplace. On the question of protecting Social Security, we’re ready to rumble.”

Shortly thereafter, after asking thousands of progressive organizers, wonks, designers, and strategists to “wade into the fights that need to be fought,” Warren waved her arms and left the stage. She never mentioned health care or the Affordable Care Act. It was a short speech, sure, but the greatest progressive achievement since the 1960s did not make the highlight reel.

Who could blame her? Roughly since September, when insurers started clear-cutting trees to print cancellation notices on policies that did not meet ACA standards, Democrats have struggled to say what’s great about the law. The president talks about it only when he has to apologize for its rollout, or for having said, “If you like your plan, you can keep your plan.” The day before Rootscamp—and the following is, to progressive activists, one of the most annoying phrases in the English language—Politifact.com named “if you like your plan” the “lie of the year.”

So Warren talked about something else. That’s a popular response. Last year’s RootsCamp, held in the flush of an Obama victory that the data-heads saw coming, was a festival of high-fiving and campaign secret-telling. This year’s gathering went in a thousand directions at once, with fewer clear wins to celebrate and much more in-progress plotting and ruminating. I once described the look of RootsCamp as “the casting pool for a party scene on Girls”—a biased and limiting cliché that I largely stand by.

But this year’s crowd included the chanting and mostly black Dream Defenders, activists who occupied the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee to demand changes to the Stand Your Ground law. This year’s badges included preferred gender pronouns, for anyone who wanted to be addressed by one that wasn’t obvious and didn’t want to make anyone feel too awkward for “misgendering.” This year’s panels—all of them are proposed by attendees, and placed on “the wall,” to be picked without judgment—included “Feeling Guilty About Our Privilege is Unproductive, but Storming In and Taking Over is Too” and “How We Got Queer Shit Done in Texas” and “11 Upworthy Ways To Maybe Win The Interwebs If You Are Lucky.” Bridget Todd of the New Organizing Institute provided the mantra: “Always throw glitter, not shade.”

The lifeless convention center was duly transformed into a happy, caring place—but what about the health care law? The big wall contained no advice or panels on it. In one morning session, heads of Organizing for America, the five-year-old spinoff of the Obama campaign, ran through all of their achievements in 2013. They held onto 40-odd million followers and 4-plus million engaged activists. We heard tales of elderly Democrats being inspired to start Twitter accounts and harsh their Republican members of Congress. “We follow what’s awesome out there,” said an OFA staffer, clicking a PowerPoint over to a tweet about Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis’ filibuster, a social media valentine that earned 17,000-plus retweets and 6,500-plus favorites.

At that moment, a Republican strategist who was at the conference to learn the left’s ways said “enough of this” and found another panel. At no moment in any of the presentations I saw, focusing on 2012 veterans trying to win more elections, was there any grappling with the health care law. I nagged Matt Saniie, an Obama campaign veteran now working with Enroll America, for some insight into the signups. “Because of the problems with the website, enrollment didn’t really get underway until the last month,” he said. A fuller story could be told four or five months from now. (My Republican friend assured me that trackers were inside Enroll America events, and they weren’t much more hope-inspiring than a clogged website.)

I wasn’t at RootsCamp to ask people with computers and jargon (say “pro and delta” instead of “pro and con,” because if it’s not working you merely change it) why they didn’t fix healthcare.gov. That would be stupid. The site was clicking away now, and lefty techs had explained, many times, to many slow reporters, why making a campaign website run was not like building an impossibly complicated health care exchange.

No, I was curious about whether progressives were working on making the law work as intended—as something that would cover more people while raising costs for others. At the luncheon where I was annoying Saniie, an activist named Jason Rosenbaum suggested “he may be a little bit freer to talk” about the big story.

“I’d say someone who gets health care will be incredibly grateful, because the system is awful in this country and the ACA does a lot to change it,” said Rosenbaum, the director of technology at the Action Network. “I don’t know how quickly that will show itself in politics—there’s a lot of data that’s being created, and certainly that will be used. There’s a lot more transparency about coverage levels, and how payments and hospitals work. It creates messages around health care that are useful, because people will understand how badly insurance companies gouge the public. In 2008, 2009, the insurance companies were the enemy, and that moved the public.”

Can that happen in 11 months, before the midterms, when the exact opposite is happening now? Would it happen by 2016? The only solace I found—for liberals, I mean—was in a panel about what Beyoncé could teach liberals about politics and messaging. The stories flowed, from dozens of progressives, about Beyoncé’s unflappable nature and endless creativity and ability to kiss off haters.

Jose Morales, an election administration fellow at the New Organizing Institute, asked his peers to remember how the singer had lip-synced the national anthem at this year’s presidential inauguration, the first of many post-election come-downs. He described the press conference Beyoncé held when the TMZ stories became too much to ignore. There was a message here, maybe, for progressives fearful that their great project was being undermined by a botched roll-out of a—possibly—botched law.

“What she did was say, ‘I’m going to get out in front of this, and I’m going to talk about the fact that, yeah, I might have missed up a little bit, but I actually did this to make sure that this was a good event,’ ” said Morales. “ ‘My intentions were right. To prove it, I’m going to sing right into this mic right now and make y’all feel like the best damn Americans in the room.’ I love America, so hearing that twice was amazing! But there’s a lesson to be learned. There’s a lot of time spent doing crisis management—stupid politics. The way she got in front and owned it, controlling that message, you stopped hearing about it. I think we can learn something from that.”