The Midnight Ride of George Pataki

Who's behind the ex-gov's health repeal crusade?

The latest health care news is the formation of a group called Revere America whose mission, it seems, is to collect one million signatures to repeal the health reform law. It’s no secret the law is not wildly popular among the electorate. While some surveys show a divided electorate, last week a Rasmussen poll of likely voters found that 58 percent of Americans support repeal. Only 38 percent of those polled believed the repeal effort would succeed, but the former New York governor is predicting enough health care dissidents across the land will sign his petitions and put pressure on Congress to get rid of the new law. He told Fox News: “We’re going to fight, mobilize, and get this repealed.”

Organized as a 501(c )(4), the group will not directly advocate for or against particular candidates, though Pataki says it will not be shy about “using the democratic process to elect people” open to repealing the health reform law. A day after announcing the petition drive in Boston—the kickoff event was held on the 235th anniversary of Paul Revere’s ride warning colonists of the impending British invasion, hence the name—he traveled to Nebraska, where state residents are none too pleased with their own senator’s support of the law. “Our freedom is in danger again today,” Pataki told a crowd in Lincoln.

So far, Pataki’s push has gotten a fair amount of media attention. NECN, a Comcast network, aired a short item about the Boston rally in which Pataki’s ally, former Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Kerry Healy, declared, “We need to repeal and replace Obamacare.” And The Hill quoted Pataki as saying: “Revere America is being launched to counter the forces of liberalism by advancing common sense public policies rooted in our traditions of freedom and free markets.”

On C-Span, Pataki accused Democrats of ignoring public opinion, and the AP took note of his attack on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for ramming the health bill through, “basically ignoring the rules of the Senate and the wishes of the American people.”

It seems Paul Revere borrowed a horse from his friend Deacon John Larkin when he rode from Charlestown to Lexington that famous night in 1775. We do not, however, know whose horse Pataki is riding. Most stories gave more space to speculating about whether his new group was an entrée into presidential politics than asking the crucial question: Who is bankrolling this effort? NECN did note that “Pataki is reportedly throwing $15 million of his own funds into the campaign,” leaving some to speculate he is gearing up for a presidential bid in 2012. USA Today’s political blog, On Politics, mentioned the $15 million figure but added, “Pataki is coy about whether donors will be revealed. ‘You’ll have to ask the lawyers,’ he told us.”

We don’t pretend to know whose money is behind Pataki, but urge some enterprising reporter to find out. A few ideas come to mind. Perhaps the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spent zillions fighting health reform and has launched a campaign to promote American free enterprise? Perhaps the insurance industry, which a few months back channeled money to the Chamber to help in its fight against health reform? Perhaps wealthy Republican businessmen? Perhaps foundations that support conservative commentators and think tanks that use the same kind of rhetoric Pataki has been employing on his road show? They, too, talk of too much government interference, freedom, and liberty—all the buzz words.

We also note that the end of the petition on the Revere America Web site lists a post office box number. Does the group have an office with a staff, or just a PR firm and PO box? More questions for the press to explore.

Early stories have tended to dismiss the idea that repeal could succeed. Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute told Fox News, “It’s not even remotely feasible.” A historical reminder here: in 1988, Congress passed a law that would have begun to provide a drug benefit for Medicare beneficiaries. Less than a year and a half later it was repealed when public opinion, especially among the elderly who did not want to pay the taxes to support the benefit, turned against it.

The travels of this modern-day, would-be Paul Revere is a legitimate story we hope the press will follow. Readers need to know who is financing Revere America, and also that there is indeed precedent for repealing health reform legislation that people don’t like. Context is everything!

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.