Here are pertinent observations from two accomplished political veterans at a forum Tuesday night at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. The question, from David Gergen, was what advice the panelists, former Reagan advisor Ken Duberstein and former JFK advisor Ted Sorensen, both of whom had been supportive of Mr. Obama in 2008—Mr. Sorensen campaigned with him in the primaries and the general election—would now give the president.
Mr. Duberstein said, “Don’t overload the circuits,” sequence your actions, don’t attempt too much too quickly, or too completely. Then, modify the tone. “In campaigning, you try to annihilate your opponent. Governing, you try to make love to your opponents, as well as your allies.”
Mr. Sorensen disagreed with the first point—he thought the circuit board was already overloaded when Mr. Obama was handed it last January—but not the second. On the issue of tone, he had told the Obama transition team, “Stop campaigning. You’ve been campaigning for years, and of course you’ve been in perpetual campaign mode, and [Bill] Clinton more than anyone else set that pattern of the permanent campaign. But once you’re president you don’t need to worry” about what’s on the front page of the Washington Post or how some mayor reacts to some appointment. You’ve got to think bigger than that, more expansively.
Mr. Gergen: “Do you think [the president] is still campaigning too much?”
“Yes,” said Mr. Sorensen. “I think that he’s a remarkable speaker, but his speeches are still largely in campaign mode. I think he was surprised by the unanimity of the Republicans in Congress against his program, and probably feels he has to be in campaign mode,” but “he’s got a long time before he has to start his re-election campaign.”
I’m not sure the White House can tell the difference between campaign mode and governing mode, but it is the difference between “us versus them” and “us.” People sense the president does too much of the former, and this is reflected not only in words but decisions, such as the pursuit of a health-care agenda that was inevitably divisive. It has lost the public’s enthusiastic backing, if it ever had it, but is gaining on Capitol Hill. People don’t want whatever it is they’re about to get, and they’re about to get it. In that atmosphere everything grates, but most especially us-versus-them-ism.
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The biggest thing supporters of a health care overhaul do not understand about those who oppose their efforts, and who oppose the Baucus bill, which has triumphantly passed the Senate Finance Committee even though no one knows exactly what is or will end up in it, is the issue of context.
The Democratic Party and the White House repeatedly suggest that if you are not for the bill or an overhaul, you don’t care about your fellow human beings and you love and support the insurance companies. Actually, no one loves the insurance companies, including the insurance companies. They attack aspects of various bills but seem unable to defend themselves, which is why you haven’t seen any 60-second spots explaining that they actually perform a public good, which they do, however imperfectly, frustratingly, mindlessly and passive-aggressively. An industry that always seems to have to be embarrassed into doing the right thing is an industry that is unlovable. But the Obama administration’s strategy of making it “the villain” in “the narrative” will probably not have that much punch because . . . well, again, who likes the insurance companies? Who ever did?
People who oppose a health-care overhaul are not in love with insurance companies. They’re not even in love with the status quo. Everyone knows the jerry-built system of the past half-century has weak points. They just don’t think the current plan will shore them up. They think the plan would create new weak points and widen old ones. They think this because they have brains.
But even that doesn’t get to the real subtext of the opposition. Yes, the timing is wrong—we have other, more urgent crises to face, and an exploding deficit. And yes, a big change in a huge economic sector during economic crisis is looking for trouble.
But a big part of opposition to the health-care plan is a sense of historical context. People actually have a sense of the history they’re living in and the history their country has recently lived through. They understand the moment we’re in.
In the days of the New Deal, in the 1930s, government growth was virgin territory. It was like pushing west through a continent that seemed new and empty. There was plenty of room to move. The federal government was still small and relatively lean, the income tax was still new. America pushed on, creating what it created: federal programs, departments and initiatives, Social Security. In the mid-1960s, with the Great Society, more or less the same thing. Government hadn’t claimed new territory in a generation, and it pushed on—creating Medicare, Medicaid, new domestic programs of all kinds, the expansion of welfare and the safety net.
Now the national terrain is thick with federal programs, and with state, county, city and town entities and programs, from coast to coast. It’s not virgin territory anymore, it’s crowded. We are a nation fully settled by government. We are well into the age of the welfare state, the age of government. We know its weight, heft and demands, know its costs both in terms of money and autonomy, even as we know it has made many of our lives more secure, and helped many to feel encouragement.
But we know the price now. This is the historical context. The White House often seems disappointed that the big center, the voters in the middle of the spectrum, aren’t all that excited about following them on their bold new journey. But it’s a world America has been to. It isn’t new to us. And we don’t have too many illusions about it.
This week Rep. Paul Ryan, the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, spoke, in an interview with the Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove, of the real-world consequences of what Washington is on the verge of doing. He said he believes the Baucus plan is “the absolute height of fiscal irresponsibility,” adding that “the shame of it all is we could actually fix what’s broken in health care without breaking what’s working, and without creating a huge new entitlement program that will accelerate the bankruptcy of this country.”
He does not believe the Baucus bill would reduce the deficit over the next 10 years. “Congress has a pattern of passing cuts to pay for bills and then restoring the cuts once the bill has been passed. It’s crystal-clear to me that the ‘pay-fors’ in this bill will not survive and we will have created a huge deficit-funded liability.” He spoke of what the likely end of Medicare Advantage, the government-subsidized private insurance program on which millions rely to supplement their coverage. He said the Obama White House has even forbidden its officials from discussing that program’s fate under various health-care bills. He charged that Democrats “hate it anyway, because it’s private, so they are killing a program that they never liked in the first place.”
Mr. Ryan is 39 years old, though he’s serving his sixth term in Congress. In his comments on the health care plan he sounded like a veteran, like someone who thinks he has seen the terrain ahead, seen that it is both crowded and costly.