Saturday, August 15, 2009


Is it just me, or are you beginning to get a sense of déjà vu? Travel with me in time back to March ‘08. Hillary Clinton had recently run her 3:00 a.m. Phone Call ad, invidiously comparing Barack Obama, her primary opponent, to the Republican candidate, John McCain. Then Hillary went on to win the crucial primaries of Ohio and Texas. It was game on. And Barack? He seemed hardly ruffled by the challenge, and came nowhere near responding in kind to Hillary’s attacks. After all, he was the one with the lead in delegates – not a huge lead, but big enough for him to at least limp to victory if he simply stayed the course. Why panic, then, and get overly negative against Hillary, whose support (and supporters) he needed in the fall?

His strategy played out to perfection. Hillary won Pennsylvania, the next big prize, but Barack continued to pick up enough delegates there, and in states like Indiana, North Carolina and Oregon, to maintain his lead. In the fall, when he needed Hillary’s support, she was there for him. The result, as we all know, was a landslide victory … and the most amazing Presidential inaugural celebration in recent memory, if not ever.

“No drama Obama,” the pundits called him. Clint Eastwood had never been so cool. But I remember last March hoping for a little more fight out of the guy. I didn’t want to see him throw haymakers at Hillary, but surely he could have drawn some blood of his own and still maintained his classy image. Bobbing, weaving and jabbing is all well and good, but sometimes, you’ve got to stop channeling your inner Sugar Ray Leonard and throw a few punches. I could have used seeing a bit more Marvin Hagler in Candidate Obama. And right now, I could use seeing a LOT more Hagler, in President Obama.

I’m thinking, of course, about the national comedy known as the “Health Care Debacle.” If it weren’t so important, it would surely go down in the annals of American political theatre as among our most sublime comic episodes. The Democratic Party splits into two types of dogs – blue and yellow. Attendees at town meetings are also split into two groups – those who show up with loaded guns, and those who vent their spleens like hecklers at a ball game. Republican statesmen use vicious rhetoric to condemn some of the same measures they’ve supported in the past. Then again, why shouldn’t they behave like shameless demagogues? As Dylan said, “when you got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose!” Finally, at the heart of it all – at the eye of this comic storm – is the unflappable one, No Drama Obama. He simply smiles and touts his “plan.” Unfortunately, nobody seems to know what that plan is, other than to announce his support for more universal health insurance and then to punt to Congress the question of how best to get that done.

When Barack speaks about Middle East peace, you get the impression that he has a vision, and he’s just waiting for the region to demonstrate that the conditions are ripe for all sides to entertain that vision. When, however, Barack speaks about health care reform, you don’t get the sense that he’s vested in, let alone passionate about, ANY particular vision. He just wants “a bill,” and he’s willing to compromise as much as necessary to make that happen.

Perhaps the President thinks he’s implementing the same strategy that worked so well for him in the primaries AFTER he took his delegate lead. Perhaps he thinks that because both houses of Congress are strongly Democratic, and the GOP doesn’t even have filibuster power, he holds all the cards. If that’s his position, he may be about to make the first huge blunder of his Presidency.

When it comes to implementing meaningful and substantial health care reform, the burden of persuasion falls entirely on the reformers. They’re the ones trying to rock the boat. They’re the ones trying to take on an industry that is as well-financed as it gets. Sure, the reformers have some natural allies – the tens of millions of Americans who are currently uninsured. But how much political power do the uninsured have? How many of them serve in Congress? Or shower Congressmen with campaign contributions?

If Barack were to ask me, I’d tell him that the better analogy isn’t to March of 2008, but to March of 2007. Back then, he was the underdog who was taking on his party’s most powerful machine in decades. He didn’t seize the lead by appearing visionless. When asked what he planned to do, he didn’t say “Ask Congress to come up with some bill, and I’ll sign it.” Instead, he proposed specific plans and he strove to project specific visions wherever he had them – civil/human rights, world peace, and political reforms come immediately to mind.

Sitting here today, I know virtually nothing about what Barack Obama thinks about health care reform. Worse yet, when he makes statements about the cost of such reform, I have no confidence that he’s on the level. From all appearances, this administration has no problem acknowledging, summarily, that reforms can be costly, but when it comes to specifics, the projections are invariably optimistic. With Barack’s support, we’ve increased our national debt by the trillions already with the help of initiatives that were touted through optimistic calculations. You don’t have to be a town-hall crazy to ask for a little specificity and a lot of candor when it comes to figuring out how much further into debt we’d get if we reformed our health care system.

Personally, I know plenty of health care providers and others who have passionate views on what we must do to implement reform in as cost-efficient a manner as possible. Steve Novick, who ran last year for the U.S. Senate, has expressed his views to me, and he states them with conviction. If Barack has convictions of his own, now might be the time to share them with the American public. Stop throwing out the word “compromise” every five seconds. Stop acting like you could give a rat’s ass about cost containment. Tell us what you think we should do, why we should do it, and how much it is most likely going to cost us – not how much it is going to cost us under the most optimistic possible scenario. And then fight like hell to get your plan enacted.

Remember those 3:00 a.m. Phone Call ads, Barack? Maybe you need to find the schmuck who came up with them and lay the wood to the demagogues, just like Hillary did to you. As one of your predecessors might have said, “If you can’t stand throwing punches, then get out of the ring.”

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