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Gergen on Obama


In his memoir, Eyewitness to Power, David Gergen, a White House adviser to four presidents, both Republican and Democrat, describes a scene (p. 300) at the Clinton White House in June 1994, when the Clintons’ health-care plan was “on the ropes.”

He recalls Ira Magaziner, then Hillarycare’s political captain, gathering a dozen of Clinton’s senior staffers into the Map Room in the basement of the White House residence for a hush-hush strategy session. Once settled, Magaziner, known for his “penchant for grand schemes,” started to speak:

As he described their plan, then still secret, I could see I was going to play odd man out again. The proposal sounded immensely complex and required far more governmental intrusion into health care than I thought appropriate or politically viable. This initial proposal is not the plan we want at the end of the process, Ira assured me, but it allows us to keep Democratic activists on board while we negotiate our way closer to the center. There we can pick up a majority, including moderate Republicans. You will also like the final plan a lot more than the one you see now.

Gergen goes on to recount how the Clinton White House then began to split into camps, with Mrs. Clinton and friends on one side and Gergen and others worried about costs and political viability on the other. Of course, Magaziner’s strategy failed. Starting from the left as a wink to your base — instead of hustling to cobble a compromise in the center — didn’t work. And it doesn’t look like a winning tack for for Pres. Barack Obama, either. Whispering promises to your base only raises expectations. When your plan falls apart in Congress, the base then despises you for your trick and those on the right will grow weary of your political dance.

One wonders if the Obama White House, now facing a similar legislative crisis on health care, has any David Gergen–types on the inside, raising eyebrows, as the debate hurtles into autumn. If there are any, they’re not easy to find. Instead, Obamacare in summer 2009 seems awfully like Hillarycare circa 1994. The Obama team keeps spinning a mixed message about the public option. Debating whether the public option will be in or out of Obamacare may be a fun parlor game for D.C.’s chattering classes, but all the spinning is just making voters dizzy. Consider another Gergen anecdote (p. 302):

In the White House, however, sentiment had hardened against compromise. Liberal chairmen of House committees were assuring the Clintons they could get the original plan through the House with only Democratic votes. Forget negotiations with the Republicans, they said, they can never be trusted. They will eventually betray you. The First Lady, burned by mounting criticisms, and by what she saw as double-dealing by some Republicans, was persuaded. “Incrementalism” became a dirty word around the West Wing, and those of us who wanted a bipartisan compromise were marginalized. When staff meetings were called on health strategy, I was increasingly left out.

Fast forward 15 years and another young Democratic president is being “burned by mounting criticisms” of his health plan’s “incrementalism.” President Obama will address a full session of Congress on September 9 in hopes of persuading skeptical lawmakers and citizens. It will be a crucial moment in his young presidency. This week, Obama senior adviser David Axelrod signaled that the White House may be prepared to move toward the center and abandon the public option. It would be a shrewd move, but Republicans, as I point out on the homepage today, are wary. If Obama truly seeks a bipartisan compromise on health care, he’s going to have to find a way bring Republicans back to the table.

Gergen, now a professor of public service at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and director of its Center for Public Leadership, spoke with NRO on Thursday. He says Obama’s upcoming speech is “minor compared to the content of the bill.”

“Clinton’s bill was vulnerable to attacks launched against it. It featured way too much government. The Obama plan out of the House has leant itself to similar arguments that it could be too much of a threat to the middle class. The president has got to turn that around. The forum is much less important,” says Gergen. “We will look back upon it and say that this was a significant turning point in the fate of health-care reform. The tide has clearly been running against him. He needs to reverse the tide, though that’s easier said than done. It is very difficult to enact a major health-care-reform package if public opinion is against it. You can count the votes in a lot of different ways, but if the polls show the public doesn’t want what emerges, it will be very difficult to move forward. I think he has a tough job ahead of him here to persuade the public that the revised bill is in their interest. Can he do it? He has scaled great rhetorical heights before and surely is capable.”

So what has Obama not learned from the past, from the collapse of Hillarycare? Gergen says it’s not so much what he hasn’t learned, but who he has missed.

“He has really missed two people: Tom Daschle and Teddy Kennedy,” says Gergen. Daschle, of course, was Obama’s first choice to be secretary of health and human services, only to drop from consideration in February following revelations of past tax trouble. Kennedy, the late Massachusetts senator, was a longtime advocate for health-care reform in the Senate and a mentor to Obama. “With Daschle, he could have drawn more power into the White House into shaping the content of the bills and could have gone a long way toward pullling together outside groups in support. Without him, it has turned out to be a huge loss.”

“A Republican senator,” says Gergen, “told me that if Teddy Kennedy had been physically fit and in the Senate, he would have been able to help the president in dealing with the personal politics of Congress [and show him] how to get a deal. He would have been a personal counsel.”

There is no doubt, says Gergen, that “the White House has as huge number of people who work with senators and their staffs, and that they’re well plugged-in.” But, he adds, “Teddy had been around these issues so long [that] had he been there, he would have kept Orrin Hatch at the table. That’s what you have to do. If you get people [like] Orrin Hatch and Chuck Grassley together, you have a chance to get something done. We had a window back in the Clinton years, to do a Dole-Moynihan bill, but it slipped past.”

“When Orrin Hatch left the table,” says Gergen, “it was a big deal. Hatch carries a lot of weight with the conservative community. He has struck deals in the past that conservatives have been able to live with. I happen to be a believer that if you’re trying to pass huge social legislation — Pat Moynihan taught me this — you need supermajorities in the Senate for it to pass. It is very desirable when trying to reform 17 percent of the economy that you do it in a way that gets support from both sides. Now they’re in a position where it’s going to be very hard to get 60 votes.”

Gergen also wonders why President Obama is going to Congress now, to give a televised lecture. If the president has not already brokered a behind-the-scenes deal on a compromise bill before the speech, says Gergen, then he shouldn’t expect his speech to change much on the Hill. “There are two issues surrounding that decision [to give a speech on September 9] that would have been worth a debate in the White House. The first is that you need to cut a deal before you go to the public. I would have argued inside, as soon as Congress gets back, to say, ‘Let’s call both sides,’ and then, through private negotiations, either at the White House or another neutral location, hammer out something we can pass, then go to the public and have something to present.”

“They’ve taken a higher-risk strategy, but to lead is to choose, and they’ve made some choices here that will inevitably cause some heartburn among some groups such as Blue Dogs or others on the left. The trick here is how the president presents a plan that really has a chance. That will be hard, if you don’t know the internal dynamics of the House and the Senate and know where that balance is. The White House knows this, but ideally the president would want to call people in and take charge of negotiations,” says Gergen.

And, Gergen adds, “I don’t think there is anything wrong with having people like Daschle or Bob Dole at that table. There is no reason they can’t be at the table, though not on the staff. Daschle is still an important outside adviser. I know that Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan both had considerable success with Congress because they first sat down with members and their lieutenants, looked them in the eye, and got something done in the closing hours.”

“We’re down to the eleventh hour,” says Gergen. “This is the last time President Obama can go to the well with a primetime television address on health care.”


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