Vacations Almost Over – It’s Time to Get Real

The August vacation is almost over and not a moment too soon. Vacations are supposed to be a time of relaxation, recharging, maybe even contemplation. It’s a break from the norm; a chance to get a new perspective on things.

Sometimes.  Then again there’s the vacation from hell where everything goes wrong and you can’t wait to get back home. The hotel that looked pretty in pictures turns out to make the Bates Motel look hospitable. And let’s not even get into the crowded airports and late flights. Such vacations are not about rest, their about survival.

When it comes to health care reform, August was more of the vacation as disaster variety. A month of demonization (fitting, somehow, for a vacation from hell), dark fantasies, and an ever increasing lack of civility. Instead of an opportunity for all sides to present their differing perspectives and to present persuasive arguments for their point-of-view we witnessed the Outrage of 2009. Sincere people whipped into a frenzy by those who profit from conflict and fear. It was not only a bad month, it was a sad one.

But that will soon be behind us. Labor Day marks the end of summer (at least psychologically if not astronomically). It will soon be time to get serious. Here’s my take on what we have to look forward in September. Some of these items are well publicized, others guesses, and still others the result of wishful thinking. As a whole, however, I expect this list identifies much of what is to come now that we’re done “relaxing.”

  • President Barack Obama will describe ObamaCare.
    According to the Associated Press, the White House is “considering a speech to spell out more details of his goals for overhauling health care ….” My guess is he’ll have to go beyond detailing goals and dive into specific on legislation. To date the President has been content to outline a broad definition of meaningful reform. There were advantages to this approach, but the downside is rapidly overwhelming those benefits. The Administration’s vagueness kept its options open, but allowed Congressional Committees to define the President’s health care plan in the public’s mind. The bills attacked during the various town hall meetings are Congressional proposals, not President Obama’s. The Administration needs to define “acceptable compromise.”  Otherwise opponents of change will continue to savage the process of reform, killing the purpose of reform without having to engage in a debate on policy.
  • The Senate Finance Committee will meet its September 15th deadline for issuing a bi-partisan proposal, or on September 16th we’ll see a Democratic proposal emerge from the committee.
    Senator Max Baucus, Chair of the Finance Committee, and his colleagues are to be commended for seeking health care reform that can gain the support of moderates in both parties. They have spent months working through both broad policies and minute details – hard work on easy issues, a herculean task when it comes to something as complex and controversial as health care reform. The time has come, however, to move on. They have created expectations that the fruits of their labor will be made public by September 15th. That expectation needs to become a reality. To date, President Obama has given them political cover by continuing to speak of principals as opposed to specific provisions. As noted above, however, that position is too tenuous to continue. If the Senate Finance Committee fails to bring forward a compromise plan before the President begins staking out firm political and policy positions their compromise won’t matter. If the Finance Committee acts first, however, the President can elevate their approach to the first proposal among equals. The most potent ordering of things is for the Senate Finance Committee to get specific first with President Obama following suit shortly thereafter. If handled correctly it would create a strong middle ground upon which moderates could take a firm stand.
  • The political attacks will continue and become more vicious …
    The Keith Olbermanns and Glenn Becks of the world have found a ratings magnet: vilify the opposition while rejecting any possibility that opponents might have a reasonable, albeit different, position. Demonizing opponents sells to those already on your side. As cable news blabbers have no need to make policy they are free to paint the world in deepest blacks and whites and “find their audience.” At the same time partisans on both sides are reveling in the fundraising bonus blind anger generates while, at the same time, proving their bona fides to core constituencies for future political efforts. As the August press coverage demonstrates, hate, slander, lies and fear sell. And there are plenty of politicians and media outlets willing to take advantage of this ugly reality.
  • … and the political attacks will become more subtle.
    At the same time the extremists will get even more viscous, lawmakers, who operate in shades of gray, will begin to prod opponents into compromises with stilettos as well as reasoned arguments. An example: Senior White House adviser David Axelrod’s claim that Republican Senators Charles Grassley and Mike Enzi have not acted in good faith during their discussions with Senator Max Baucus and other Senate Finance Democrats to produce a bi-partisan health care reform bill. The attack by Mr. Axelrod is both a means of assuring liberals that the White House is capable of playing hardball as it is of prodding the GOP Senators to continue negotiations.
  • The Status Quo is in for a beating.
    The only way to enact substantial change is to convince people the status quo is untenable. This is good news for reformers as the health care system’s status quo is untenable. Medical costs must be constrained or state governments and private businesses alike will be bankrupt. Families cannot live in fear of facing a choice between financial and health security. The medical infrastructure of emergency rooms and pro bono care cannot continue to handle their ever increasing burden. Advocates of reform will make this case repeatedly and in the harshest of terms. The resulting cacophony will be painful in many senses of the word, but it’s an inevitable part of the process.
  • Many issues will be in play, only a few will be discussed.
    Change will come, either thoughtfully and not. All Americans will benefit from a thoughtful approach.Such thoughtful reform includes tackling medical cost containment. Health insurance premiums, after all, reflect the cost of health care. Those premiums have doubled in the past 10 years, an unsustainable rate of increase. If we’re going to “bend the cost curve” as President Obama puts it, tough decisions will be required. Making those decisions is especially difficult in an environment when consultations on living wills is construed as creating death panels, but making them is essential nonetheless. Politically, however, lawmakers need a bad guy. So the public debate will focus on market reforms (Exchanges and public plans, pre-existing conditions and mandates to buy coverage) which permit the vilification of insurance companies while, hopefully, quieter arguments focus on cost containment. Hopefully, because if health care reform is to have any long term meaning, it needs to control costs.

By the end of the year President Obama will sign into law health care reform legislation. That final package may not look much like the legislation discussed at the town hall meetings in August, but it will dramatically change America’s health care system nonetheless. And when the raucous debates, political warfare and mongering of fear is over, when the reforms are signed into law but before the long process of making them work begins, hopefully there will be time for a real vacation.

Obama Health Care Reform Strategy Sidesteps Clinton’s Missteps

The number of mistakes made by the Clinton Administration in pushing for health care reform in 1993 are embarrassingly numerous.  One of the most damning was their heavy handed approach with Congress. Instead of engaging with lawmakers from the beginning, the task force led by then First Lady Hillary Clinton worked behind closed doors. Democratic Congressional Members were pushed out of the loop and expected, I assume, to fall in line with their Democratic President because, well, he was their Democratic President. Oh, and of course because the health care reform package developed by the task force was so obviously wonderful.

Leaving aside the lack of wonderfulness in the plan they developed, this approach was nothing short of political malpractice. The president may propose, but it’s Congress that enacts legislation. Any effort to dramatically change something as expensive and personal as health care will generate opposition. Some of that opposition is based on sincere differences of opinion concerning public policy. Some emerges from economic or political agendas threatened by the changes. In either event, it’s important to have a strong base with a unified message to withstand the inevitable attacks. The Clinton Administration’s approach — imposing their viewpoint on Congress — meant they had few supporters when and where they needed them most. The result was a political rout that helped open the way to a Republican takeover of Congress in 1994.

Whether based on temperament or wisdom earned at the Clinton presidency’s expense, President Barack Obama and his team are approaching health care reform in a far different manner. Their outreach to Congress has been extraordinary. They are not only working with Congressional leaders to design the plan, but are helping to create a unified message as well.

The Associated Press reported on a meeting today between several Democratic Senators and White House political advisor David Axelrod. Their goal, according to Senator Dick Durbin, was to “coordinate our messaging so we present a health care reform effort that the American people trust.”

The meeting was, in part, a response to advice circulated among Republicans by Dr. Frank Luntz outlining ways to attack the Democratic proposal. Dr. Luntz is a highly regarded GOP consultant and an expert on political messaging, the author of Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear. He urged Republicans to be “on the side of reform.” while attacking the Administration’s proposal as leading “to the government setting standards of care, instead of doctors” and “to the government rationing care.”

The 26-page report has caused quite a stir on Capital Hill. Democrats in Congress wanted to make sure they were prepared to withstand the suggested assault. The meeting today with Senators and with House Leaders yesterday were designed to do just that. It was reinforced by a message to the grass roots following President Obama developed during the campaign that now operates as Organizing for America.

What was agreed to was a three-pronged message: medical costs must be lowered, people must have choice in their health care coverage, and care must be affordable for everyone. How these principles are put into action has yet to be determined. No legislation has yet emerged from the numerous Congressional hearings underway.

It’s the lack of explicit information that makes framing the reform effort so important. Until there’s actual legislation to read, all the public has to go on is the general policy positions pronounced by various parties. Eventually, we’ll see a bill, but how the public reacts to it will be influenced to some degree by the spinning that occurs before its release.

By involving Democrats in Congress early in the process of developing the legislative language and working with them to shape a unified message, the Obama Administration is sidestepping one of the most damaging missteps of the Clinton Administration. Ultimately what will matter is the legislation itself. But the mere fact that President Obama and his team are avoiding the mistakes made 16 years ago, is an indication of how different the battle will be this time.