Commentary: Health care debate shows Democrats can't lead

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 21, 2009 

The sad truth is that the Democrats can't govern even when they have all the marbles in their pockets. It doesn't appear that they even know how to fight back when the stakes were never higher.

President Barack Obama is off to Martha's Vineyard to work on his golf and tennis games when he ought to be staying home working on his bare-knuckle skills. He leaves behind him a health care reform proposal, desperately needed, that is sinking faster than his poll numbers.

Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Everything he and his much-vaunted Chicago advisers have said and done on health care reform has been botched.

The president has clung far too long to the hilarious idea of bipartisanship — the idea that if he bends over backward he can entice the support of any Republican besides Sen. Olympia Snowe.

He and the Democratic leaders in Congress have yet to even crack a whip over the backs of the so-called Blue Dog Democrats, aka Dirty Dawgs.

So on the all important Senate Finance Committee where health care languishes and dies the death of a thousand cuts we have Sen. Max Baucus, Blue Dog-Montana, playing footsy with Sen. Chuck Grassley, who poses as a "moderate" Republican from Iowa.

The president refers to both Baucus and Grassley as "my friends." Mr. President, those guys are not your friends. If you want a friend in Washington, D.C., Harry S. Truman suggested that you buy a dog. Or dozens of dogs, as the health insurers and Big Pharma have done.

The first and biggest mistake on health care was the president's decision not to present his reform ideas in one package but to leave the organization of the whole circus up to the clowns, the members of that august legislative body, the Congress.

The second glaring error was to signal that the only meaningful competition in health care reform — a government-run option akin to Medicare — didn’t mean all that much to the White House.

The third huge mistake was to have the president hogging the airwaves daily, if not hourly, broadcasting mixed messages, mistaken messages, messages of weakness and vacillation.

Oh yeah. It was wrong, wrong, wrong for the president to personally cut a deal with the Big Pharma executives that declared the government would not even attempt to negotiate lower drug prices. In exchange, the pharmaceutical buzzards promised faithfully to voluntarily cut drug prices for some seniors by a theoretical $80 billion.

Mr. President, if Big Pharma can cut prices $80 billion and still make an obscene rate of profit, how much more could real negotiators have squeezed out of them for all Americans?

As a parting shot, President Obama wrote an end to the only part of the Trillion Dollar Stimulus Plan that was visibly seen and felt by some ordinary American citizens — the $3 billion cash-for-clunkers program that took thousands of gas-guzzling old vehicles off the road and jump-started the moribund auto industry.

Funny how we've spent hundreds of billions rescuing the biggest banks and brokers and insurance firms, those bastions of free-market capitalism, with hardly a no vote on either side of the aisle, but Republicans tried to derail the piddling $2 billion addition to clunkers as a matter of principle.

May I suggest, please, that our president skip the golf and tennis during his first fancy vacation on the Vineyard and instead take up a serious study of the game of politics in the hardball league.

The first rule is: Never Take Your Eye Off the Ball!

The next rule is: Reward Your Friends and Punish Your Enemies!

The White House is a bully pulpit if you have a message and stick to it. So get one quick, Mr. President, if it isn't already too late.

You arrived in Washington, D.C., with everything needed for success: An approval rating near 70 percent. An agenda most Americans generally agreed with. Your party had an unbreakable grip on the White House and both houses of Congress.

You leave town seven months later with everything in shambles: Your poll numbers, your party, your agenda and your grip.

When you come back you ought to have a list of about six folks you plan to fire; a few dozen dirty dawg Democrats you plan to whip like redheaded stepchildren, and a new list of "My Republican Friends" that includes only Olympia Snowe.

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