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February 24th, 2010
11:59 PM ET

The Blair House Health Summit: Missing Pat Moynihan

David Gergen | BIO
AC360° Contributor
CNN Senior Political Analyst

It is easy to be sympathetic with President Obama’s attempt to revive health care reform by embarking on a big, new gamble this week. After all, he campaigned on health reform, has made it the signature issue of his presidency, and according to those around him in the White House, focuses on it almost to the point of obsession. Like many of his predecessors, Mr. Obama seems deeply moved by past health care struggles of a close family member – in this case, his mother.

So, the President deserves a significant measure of respect for trying to get reform across the goal line. He has already come closer than any of seven other presidents who have tried. Now he and his aides believe it imperative to give one last try.

But one should not underestimate the size of the gamble. The President and Democrats are already in political trouble for spending a full year on health reform and then hitting a wall. A more cautious president would have walked quietly away from the scene of the accident. Indeed, that’s what Mr. Obama appeared to be doing in his recent State of the Union, insisting that he now focus on jobs and not mentioning health care until he was a half hour into the speech.

But he was apparently itching to try again and when he had a bravura performance, with cameras rolling, as he paid a call on House Republicans in Baltimore, a light bulb went off in the White House: let’s have a “summit” at Blair House with Republicans and Democrats. If the President, they thought, can once again dazzle in debate with Republicans, that will light a new fire behind reform and maybe – just maybe – it will then pass.

So, Mr. Obama is doubling down on his bet. If he succeeds, he could not only revive health care but his presidency. If he fails, however, he will deliver a second body blow to himself and his party. And prospects for passage of a comprehensive bill are uncertain at best: while looking better in the Senate, the House could go either way. So this is a big gamble.

Hovering over Blair House is an even bigger question: Even if it were possible for Mr. Obama to succeed, is it wise? Given current conditions, would passage of his comprehensive bill be in the best interests of the country?

There is no right answer to those questions – much depends on what you think about the substance of the bill. But there is a deeper wisdom from the past that ought to be considered, too. It was taught to me back in the 1990s by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, one of the brightest lights ever to serve in the U.S. Senate and a personal friend. Pat was then chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, I had just joined up with President Bill Clinton at the White House, and a titanic struggle was underway over the Clintons’ efforts to reform health care.

Moynihan, a Democrat, told me that there were two essential pre-requisites to passing major social reform in this country. The first, he said, was that landmark social legislation should be passed with significant, bipartisan support from both sides of the aisle – otherwise, there would always be trouble with it. He sent me the vote tallies to show how at least a half dozen or more Senators from the opposition party voted for big social initiatives stretching back to the New Deal – from Social Security in the 1930s the civil rights bills of the mid-60s and Medicare and Medicaid bundled together in 1965.

Secondly, he said, landmark social legislation should enjoy solid support from the public before it is passed. Again, history bears out his point. Presumably, the fact that major legislation enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress helped to build up majority support in the country.

It is sobering – and should give us pause – that the comprehensive health care bill now under debate meets neither test. In the House, only one Republican has voted in favor (and has since changed his mind) and not a single Republican in the Senate. People can argue till the cows come home about why. The point is that passage of this omnibus bill through the reconciliation process would be a strictly partisan affair – a sharp break from recent history.

Just as important, the public doesn’t want Washington to do this. Averaging up the results of ten major polls over the past month, Real Clear Politics finds that opinion is running 52-38 percent against passage of the Obama/Democratic plan. There has been some tightening of late in the Democrats’ favor, but the margin against is still the most negative in memory for major social legislation. Today, CNN released a new poll, just out of the field, showing that only 25 percent want Congress to pass this big bill, 48 percent want Congress to start over, and 25 percent want to stop working on health care. Those are important results.

It is possible that President Obama can turn opinion around in the Democrats’ favor through the Blair House summit. Again, one should accord the President great respect for trying. But if he is unable to win Republicans to his side AND if he is unable to win over the public, doesn’t that suggest that he should reconsider?

Should he not think again about the recommendation of his own chief of staff – to take a handful of the best ideas from Democrats and Republicans, weave them into a scaled down bill, and win passage of a bill that will be both bipartisan and enjoy the support of the country? Wouldn’t that be a good way to get started on serious health care reform so that we can also turn our attention back to jobs? I wish Pat Moynihan were at Blair House to whisper in the President’s ear.


Filed under: David Gergen • Health Care • Opinion
soundoff (186 Responses)
  1. Chris D.

    The GOP has never been on board for HC reform........Never!!!
    Unfortunately there is no longer a sign of compassion, and fire circa Abraham Lincoln, or Teddy Roosevelt in the GOP. Even a shrewd man like President Nixon saw the need for universal coverage.
    These type of men no longer represent the GOP.......
    In all actuality, the DEM party has many different views......if you ask me, they've had to compromise w/ the differing views of their own party.......Basically put, DEMS are the only party w/ moderate conservatives.......The GOP no longer posesses that strength.....Except perhaps w/ Senator Brown from Massachusetts.

    February 25, 2010 at 12:10 pm |
  2. Laurice Scott

    I, and everyone I know feel this: For everyone that is a government employee, getting great, cheap insurance that the American people are paying for, but do not want all Americans to have the same type insurance they have, they need to give theirs up. Period. For everyone in Congress who is saying, "delay or start over", give up your insurance and deal with the delays or start overs. I truly believe you will quickly change your tune. As far as the many Americans that keep saying they don't want good insurance for all Americans, chances are, you have a great job and insurance, but let something happen where you lose your income, take a $30,000 income drop, your credit falls off of a cliff and let's see how quickly there will be an attitude change.

    Thank You So Much.

    L. Scott

    February 25, 2010 at 11:36 am |
  3. Butch

    Being a socialistic bill, he should DROP IT – and the whole idea.

    He has already worked to "remake America" with the federal government in charge of banks – and industry – and now he wants our health care? NO! This smells like a POWER GRAB. We don't want the Government running our lives... telling us what to do! This is AGAINST OUR WILL! WE LOVE OUR FREEDOM!

    We can and WILL VOTE OBAMA OUT OF OFFICE – along with all the others in responsible for holding us hostage with this bill. Note recent vote results in VA, NJ and MA. 2012 can't come soon enough.

    February 25, 2010 at 11:04 am |
  4. Scott D.

    David, You have shown me again why I have such admiration for you as a journalist. Your conclusions are absolutely correct. The only question is whether our "community organizer in chief" is paying attention.

    February 25, 2010 at 11:01 am |
  5. Mike Lawrence

    The best plan out ther is one that would lower the age on medicare to 55 , this would take the most people out of the higher risk ares ot privite ins,and lower the cost of privite ins. The ins ins co. should jump on thi with both feet. The next thing is to go after faud in medicare there is no dout that 4 to 5 billion can be saved and cover the cost to cover additional people added to medicare

    February 25, 2010 at 11:00 am |
  6. Michael Berger

    What a waste of time. We the people already know that the net result of this meeting will be more of nothing and political posturing.

    The Republicans have already made up their minds to stall and warp the truth (Confusing the Necular Option and Recociliation) and the Dems will takl the issue to death and not keep their campaing promise to provide universal health care.

    Has anyone figured out yet that the insurance companies are in business to make a profit, not look out for the public interest. That is supposed to be the job of the pompus nut cases we sent to Washington.

    We will not have health care reform in this country until we remove insurance (for profit) companies from the driver's seat. This does not take a lot of figuring to figure out.

    Oh well, 3 more years of bloviating and then we will hear the same old crap again about how government is too big and the solution to all of our ills is tax cuts from the Republicans and then how we need reform and regulation from the Dem's.

    I am still confused as to why 51 of 100 is not a majority. Oh yes, I forgot about the new math that 60 is the majority by the Republican party until they have the majority vote in the Senate.

    February 25, 2010 at 10:59 am |
  7. Bill Leonard

    With all due respect to both David Gergen and Patrick Moynihan, Wrong! When there is a national crisis of the magnitude of the health care crisis in America, our national leaders must act for the sake of the nation! I give you a common sense analogy, an automobile badly in need of repair, maybe even a Toyota. I also give you the GOP response of No Change or Change in Small Steps. The GOP doesn't repair the brakes; the GOP removes the entire brake system. In addition the automoble was designed with two axles, four wheels, four rims, and four good tires. My automoble is returned to me with no brakes, one axle, one wheel, one rim, and one flat tire. The GOP informs me they will get back with me later! The GOP claims this is what Americans want. Do they take me for an IDIOT?

    February 25, 2010 at 10:50 am |
  8. sridhar

    He should go ahead.
    I am an independent. Republicans were given lot of oppertunity to sit and talk and come with some + ideas.
    Afetr listening to all their leaders the only thing they wanted to do was to say NO to everything.
    They are plying a delay tactice.
    There are many instances where Presidents have taken steps which were not very popular.
    We need a health care bill, which is better than what we have.
    People whose health insurance was denied for some reason or the other, will only understand the need for change.

    February 25, 2010 at 10:47 am |
  9. mac

    this oooooooooooooozes with sugar for obama he is o for 2 as pat moynihan points out. it is strictly party lines AND is not popular with the majority of the public
    however i do believe it will be passed and the american sheeple will whine and cry about it for maybe 3days and then start reaching into their pocket to feed the big hogs again on the hill

    February 25, 2010 at 10:44 am |
  10. John Macky

    Senior narcissist!..We want jobs!!!!!!!! We don't care about healthcare right now! Get it or you too busy preening in your teleprompter! Gawd! Wake up!!!!!!!!

    February 25, 2010 at 10:43 am |
  11. Rampage Jackston

    Instead of placing caps on doctor's fees and insurance companies's high prices, this dumb administration once again robs taxpayer's money to hand it out to those that stand in line to wait for everything free to come to them without having worked for it. The United States is on its way to oblivion and its population could not care less!

    February 25, 2010 at 10:41 am |
  12. Roberto - Phoenix

    Good luck, David – this administration is the most arrogant, deaf, incompetent, and stridently partisan in my lifetime (60 years). A high percentage of Americans know that the health care system is broken, can project the cost increases to see that in our children's lifetimes they will have to pay 100%+ of their gross family income for it, and would support significant, meaningful redesign. But they are also smart enough to know that the present proposals are flawed, corrupt, and won't fix the problem without bankrupting that same generation through massive debt and taxation. You have to start from scratch – the American Health Care System is an evil 5-headed monster of a greedy medical profession, insurance companies, tort lawyers, drug companies, the government itself, and irresponsible, obese, lazy Americans who feel no responsibility to insure sound personal healthy lifestyles. All 5 elements must be radically re-engineered for a viable long-term solution without driving the country into bankruptcy.
    a

    February 25, 2010 at 10:41 am |
  13. virgina nielsen

    Hi David, how are you ? Against all the odds this bill must be passed because I just neede to use my health insurance and I found out that they only pay 80% of the bill... the rest was up to me, $12,000.00 that I had to pay with my savings. What a shame !!!

    February 25, 2010 at 10:41 am |
  14. Roderick Raymond

    Mr. Gergen,
    It is clear that the President is at a political crossroad in conducting this summit but he has chosen this path. Remember when he spoke in Selma, Alabama he refered to us as the "JOSHUA GENERATION", that was his signature speech by telling the american people that he is prepared for the hard task that was before him. We as americans now have the opportunity to come together to solve a problem that is breaking our country. Healthcare is not just for the weathy but for everyone. I am fortuant to have a Government own Public Option by being retired military and I would love for everyone in America to have the same thing. So Let's STOP THE MADNESS AND WORK TOGETHER FOR A COMMON GOAL WHICH IS TO SUPPORT EACH OTHER.

    February 25, 2010 at 10:19 am |
  15. Bob

    Requiring bipartisan support for any major social legislation may have worked in the past, but in 2010 Congress is clearly BROKEN. in today's outrageously partisan Congress, the Republicans have been simply saying, "No" and have yet to offer up any program of their own. The Republicans are being total obstructionists and individually, at least some of them are simply being cowards. It is incomprehensible to me that not at least one Republican will be independent and courageous enough to step away from the "party line" and do what is right. Fighting is not what we elect senators and representatives to do – we want them to actually do something to better this country.

    Regarding the fact that the polls suggest that the majority of Americans are not in favor of major health care legislation, these poll results are the result of the way the question has been asked, and also due to the outrageous scare tactics of the opponents – everything from "elimination of doctor choice", "refusing care for older Americans if not cost-effective" to Sarah Palin's "death panels". Reading some of the untruths contained in the emails circulating on the Internet would make anyone nervous - unless they do the research to discover that most of them contain absolute lies.

    The truth of the matter is that most Americans realize the health care and health insurance system is broken and want it fixed. Americans want:
    1) the elimination of the ability of health insurance companies to refuse coverage,
    2) more controls over cost increases in both health care and health insurance,
    3) reasonable limits on malpractice awards to attorneys and plaintiffs, and
    4) more competition for health insurance coverage (in RI there is only ONE company – Blue Cross – that writes direct coverage for individuals and they recently asked for a 10.2% increase for coverage that already was extremely expensive relative to virtually all group coverage).

    Come on, Congress – there has to be room for some reasonable compromises to get at least some of the above done. Now is the time!

    February 25, 2010 at 10:16 am |
  16. Tim

    Provide Health Care toiall Americans and make the rich pay for it. I support that 100%. The rich need to pay way more taxes than they do. They consume more resources than a middle class person.

    February 25, 2010 at 10:12 am |
  17. Norman Sturtevant

    Mr. Gergen is exactly right. The country does not want the current 2000 plus page monster of a bill. There seems to be little evidence that the Democrats are willing to compromise and pass the few elements that the parties can agree on. The reality is that the parties right now are very far apart on what the role of government in our lives should be. This will ultimately be resolved by the voters in November 2010.

    February 25, 2010 at 10:11 am |
  18. Tim

    I don't see it where the media says this is Obama's big gamble? Obama has tried to do the right thing all along. Its members of Congress that are in the spotlight. Its time for Congress to stop hiding under a rock and stand up and show which side of the American middle class they support. The Republicans are the ones preventing health care for all Americans becoming a reality. Make no mistake about that. Lets see if they can walk the talk today and if they really have the good of the American people in mind. I seriously doubt it.

    February 25, 2010 at 10:09 am |
  19. Tayo, NY

    Well in one sense you are right but the major problem is that Democratic leader are poor salesmen. They have a poor job of selling the good ideas that are present in the health care bills.

    Another issues is that majority of American public don't even know what they want, period!

    Many favor health care bill in the past but are now against it.

    Many want to keep cost down; eliminate uses of pre-existing conditions; have more coverage for more Americans; etc. All these and many more are in the bills yet polls is indicating they want us st start all over again. I can't get it!

    This is just similar to other recent bills, including the bank bail out, stimulus bill, etc.

    Many people expecially the politicians welcome the turning around of the economy, albelt gradually, yet they critisized the government imput as being too much. However, when the government want to have more regulation and is making effort to get our money back, people start to complain that there is too much government interference. The Government is given at least 95% of Americans tax cuts, and is only excluding the so called "riches" yet people are talking about too much tax. I don't get it! All I know is that accross the board overwelming tax cut along with excessive spending, including does not equal balance budget.

    While I aggree that we cannot be spending money indescreminately without thinking of the consequences we cannot bee clomouring for policies that was tried in recent years and found to have drove us into the ditch.

    Look at the case of the new increase in premium in Calefornia (39%) in a year; To me that is totally crazy and I dear anybody to tell American people that is the right way to go. If we don't do anything about it now, we will all suffer for it tomorrow and our children we suffer the most.

    Both side just need to find common ground and stop playing politics over our lives. Period!

    February 25, 2010 at 10:07 am |
  20. Mark

    Who is it that really wants this political health care package?? Others talk about it, but the only people ranting about it are the politicians. Are they just looking for some kind of feather for their caps? New Deal reforms, at least historically, were sold as programs to help the country out of the Great Depression. What is health care reform really going to do to help us out of the Great Recession? It seems like the politicians still don't understand what is going on outside of the Washington beltway.

    February 25, 2010 at 10:04 am |
  21. arthur Boston

    It doesn't matter what he does ,this is the yearsof the "No to everything he does no matter whether good or bad" the Republicans have
    lost control of the candy store and like spoiled brats they will do whatever it takes to get back ownership. They do nor care for Mr Average Joe, just themselves. What a pity this country has bred such selfish and egotistical individuals

    February 25, 2010 at 10:01 am |
  22. Doug

    David, the last four paragraphs of your piece neatly encapsulate the issue for so many of us in the political center of the country.

    February 25, 2010 at 10:00 am |
  23. Carmy McAllister

    Godspeed, President Obama as you embark!

    February 25, 2010 at 9:58 am |
  24. kj

    I would like to see both parties work on the bill. President Obama's initiative is wonderful but I would like to see a bi-partisan effort and result.

    February 25, 2010 at 9:56 am |
  25. Rick Norwood

    True Mr. Gergen, but here's the BIG difference...the Republicans will not agree with President Obama on anything, even if he said a banana was yellow, they would object!!! The only way President Obama will get anything passed is with his own party. It's time for his party to wise up, seize the moment and make things happen. Enough is enough. The Democrats better get it together with their majority before too many turn their backs on them and the Republicans will be back in the majority returning to the chaos they are used to causing.

    February 25, 2010 at 9:56 am |
  26. scott

    Hi David:

    Thanks for a well thought out and fair description of the stakes, methods and possible outcomes. I agree that without bipartisan public and congressional support, moving forward is a recipe for disaster. If consensus is absent, scaling back the bill is a reasonable approach.
    I would suggest one minor correction to your editorial; I believe support from the public generates bipartisanship in Congress, not the other way around.

    Regards,

    Scott

    February 25, 2010 at 9:51 am |
  27. Julia Whitaker

    Social security costs are out of control.
    Medicare costs are out of control.
    Medicaid costs are out of control.
    What makes the president think that his health care costs won't be out of control also? His health care plan will totally bankrupt this country.
    We Americans don't need another handout from the government. We need good jobs so we can afford to buy our own health insurance. Again, let me repeat: We don't need another handout from the government.

    February 25, 2010 at 9:51 am |
  28. ZERE

    Very informative. article full of wisdom

    February 25, 2010 at 9:48 am |
  29. Elliott

    That's the issue, the Rep don't want to provide any real ideas that will help with the effort!!! They just want to find ways to stop it for political reasons only, so I say we have to move on without them. The only thing the President can do is take out some of the controversial things in it and push it through!!!!

    I would say stop it and focus on Jobs or something else if I didn't think Health care was/is crippling this country, it is on an unsustainable path!!!

    February 25, 2010 at 9:46 am |
  30. marie wilkins

    In the first place, If you want to bankrupt the USA then go ahead and pass this the worst excuse for a health care bill. You are trying to take away my choices my right to make a choice . I do not need you or my government to make choice for my healthcare or anything else. It is stupid to require people who do not want health care to pay a penality. This admisinstration is nuts. Nuts, Nuts

    February 25, 2010 at 9:46 am |
  31. larry

    please stop the maddness. this bill and the over 2 trillion in total spending that comes with it needs to be buried dead on arrival. this congress and even this lunatic of a president need to start from scratch-as much as I hate to admit Moynihan was right-he was-you need true consensus and popular support for a bill of this magnitude and scope. forcing it down our throats is ideologic and dictatorial. this is not what this country was built on.

    February 25, 2010 at 9:45 am |
  32. kenneth

    well said

    February 25, 2010 at 9:45 am |
  33. Carrie

    "...the public doesn’t want Washington to do this..." because the part of the public that consists of the already descimated and rapidly deteriorating middle class has already been assured by Washington that this will be another nail in the coffin of the middle class. As far as what's left of the middle is concerned, the words middle class and taxes must never again be uttered in the same sentence or proposal or piece of legislation – at least not until this country once again has a strong middle class. The part of the "public" that made this country strong, and the part of the "public" that can make this country strong again knows that we do not have a seat at the table. Rather, we are once again on the menu.

    February 25, 2010 at 9:38 am |
  34. Michael

    I'm very against health care reform... your aticle was very good and fair. Thanks,

    February 25, 2010 at 9:38 am |
  35. John

    Unfortunately times have changed from the Moynihan Days. Back then, there was hope congress understood things needed to be done for the good of the country. Now, the politicians are only thinking about what they can do to make the other party look bad so they can stay/regain power. My understanding is there are originally supported Republican initiatives in this Bill, yet now they are all voting against it to "hurt" Obama with the short sighted goal of regaining control of congress in the 2010 Elections. All the yelling and screaming they are doing over "reconcilation" is crocodile tears as well since when the Republicans were in power, they used reconciliation 16 times in the last couple fo decades – most notably to pass two Bush tax cuts that may have lead us to the financial instability and deficts we find now. They even described it as "rules of the senate that allows majority rule and who could be against that?"

    February 25, 2010 at 9:38 am |
  36. Vicky Bevis

    I've always thought for the last decade that David Gergen is one of the ONLY sound minds left in D.C. And his referencing of D.P. Moynihan proves it. My husband just told me the health care bill, as written now, is over 3,000 pages! INCREDIBLE! I even wonder if all the congressional aids have been able to read through it, let along congress people who will eventually have to vote for it.

    It is so simple it isn't even funny: we NEED health care that is affordable for everyone. Other countries do it, ( I'm familiar with Australia's health care system & I'd KILL for something like it.) so other than unmitigated greed, I can find no other reason we don't have it. This is an issue that falls into "the Common Good." We pay for free public schools, we pay for roads & bridges, we pay for police & fire protection. How is this any different? Eventually, we ALL will NEED health care, barring a fatal accident.

    But please! Give us health care & leave the "pork" ( I refuse to use the new politically correct, "earmarks". Call it what it is.) for some other bill that can pass much easier & with little fanfare.. You do it all the time!

    February 25, 2010 at 9:37 am |
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