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Ghost of health care past

Ghost of health care past

Posted: Friday, September 4, 2009 8:01 pm
By: Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

By DOUGLAS COHN
and ELEANOR CLIFT
WASHINGTON — Democrats hope that Sen. Ted Kennedy’s death might somehow bridge the gaps within their own ranks and boost the chance for significant health care reform this year. Everybody seems to think that if Kennedy had been healthy and able to lead the fight on Capitol Hill that President Obama would be on the verge of a major legislative victory instead of trying to reverse the negative momentum of the summer.
Obama should savor these last long days of summer because when Congress returns after Labor Day, he’ll need to show serious leadership if he wants to get a health care bill. Failure is not an option, not with Democrats controlling the House and Senate. The question is what will Obama settle for in the ultimate compromise, and will it better serve the insurance industry or the patients and consumers.
Obama needs to reset his strategy on health care reform after a disastrous August punctuated by the death of Kennedy. With Kennedy gone, there is no charismatic leader in the Senate to take his place. Obama has no one to partner with in the Republican Party the way President Bush relied on Kennedy to shepherd the No Child Left Behind legislation. Only Kennedy had the stature within the Democratic Party to convince reluctant liberals to back Bush’s education program.
Kennedy leaves a void that only Obama can fill when it comes to health care reform. The president will have to sell his fellow Democrats on whatever deal he strikes, and that will take a primetime speech before a joint session of Congress, perhaps an additional speech or two delivered from the Oval Office, and lots of arm-twisting lawmakers on Capitol Hill to muster the votes to make health reform a reality.
But before Obama can aggressively sell his program to the people, he needs to present a plan. A statement of principles with Congress filling in the blanks is not sufficient. The plan can be flexible and open to amendments, but Obama needs a specific piece of legislation to promote and defend. He’s given the gang of six senators, three Democrats and three Republicans, from the Senate Finance Committee until Sept. 15 to produce their bipartisan plan. If they can’t meet the deadline, Obama may have to give up his goal of achieving bipartisan consensus and take what he can get with Democratic votes.
Franklin Roosevelt, one of Obama’s heroes, achieved significant reform in a record amount of time by having his top advisors, dubbed his brain trust, develop legislation and send it to Congress fully formed. The Clintons adopted that model when Hillary Clinton and a task force of experts wrote health care legislation in the White House and presented it as a finished product to the various committees on Capitol Hill. The congressional barons resented being left out of the process and sabotaged the effort.
Obama over-learned the lessons of the Clintons, deferring to Congress to write health care reform legislation and standing off to the side for much of the debate. Even though he took office with a strong mandate for change and with strong Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, Obama has been haunted by the Ghost of Health Care Past.
He turned over the writing of legislation to a handful of committee chairs, the last of which, Sen. Max Baucus of Montana is negotiating with five other senators who represent mostly rural, sparsely populated states and have parochial interests that don’t always mesh with the national interest. Obama is reluctant to abandon his original strategy, and maybe he’s right. He prides himself on his ability to perform when the pressure is on, and it’s on now. If Obama loses this moment, it may not come again.
Published in The Messenger 9.4.09

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