David Gergen | BIO
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.
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