The leadership gap

by Ken Feltman

Another way to lose control is to ignore something when you should address it.
– Jim Evans, baseball umpire

Evans’ statement is worded so plainly that it seems obvious and inadequate at the same time. Of course, if you ignore something, it can get out of control: A small fire, a leaky roof, a rattle in the car. Are there more eloquent ways of putting it? Yes, many. But Evans makes it clear:

Fix the problem before it gets worse.

The essence of many of the statements made about healthcare by President Obama and congressional leaders is that we need to do something now but the other guys are standing in the way. The White House and other Democrats blame the Republicans for scare tactics – “death panels” and withdrawal of treatments – and the Republicans talk about rationing, mandates, bloated costs and the “public option.” Can you blame the folks back home if they wonder whether the folks they sent to Washington understand that if healthcare were a small fire, it would have consumed the house by now?

The public understands that it is too late to be timely, too late to scare people with more dire warnings, too late to change many minds. The public thinks that Washington is dithering. The public wonders whether Obama will assert leadership before it is too late to get something done.

Forget consensus

The public wanted Democrats and Republicans to come up with a consensus for action. Any hope of consensus seems gone, destroyed when senior citizens realized that reform meant slicing benefits for Medicare recipients. You cannot reach consensus when the most vocal healthcare consumers think that they are being whacked, Chicago-style. Presidents can make a decision to sacrifice a core constituency – President Johnson decided to alienate the South in the cause of civil rights – but that creates political wounds that may fester for years.

LBJ stepped in and limited the partisanship in his party. Then Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen (R-IL) brought the Republicans along by pointing out that the president was seeking common ground. Both Johnson and Dirksen went one-on-one with senators and stressed that “we are already over 100 years late” as they rounded up votes. That message worked better than “the other party is the problem.”

Actually, Obama and all of the rest of us have a problem. Obama is not a veteran of back-room politicking for support. He is accustomed to the mass appeal of a packed auditorium or TV program. Before his election as president, he had little experience in asking his senate peers for help. Now, his surrogates spread out over Capitol Hill and demand support. They are a bit like mob enforcers. But senators and representatives can be arrogant; They want to hear from the man in the Oval Office. Obama does not seem to have the stomach for that. He wants others to do the horse-trading and, if needed, the whacking.

Leadership is not without risk

Johnson showed leadership. Obama has chosen to be “cheerleader-in-chief” for healthcare reform. He has told us how important it is and the consequences of inaction. He has excoriated opponents of reform. But he has left the details of reform to Senator Baucus, Speaker Pelosi, Majority Leader Reid and others on Capitol Hill. They are not evil people but they are not working in an environment that is conducive to compromise.

If we still had people like Senators Bill Bradley (D-NJ), Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS), Pat Moynihan (D-NY), Howard Baker (R-TN), Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-MA). Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-IL) and Dirksen, would we have a better chance at fair and meaningful reform? Perhaps. They saw politics as art – the art of the possible. Respectfully, I suggest that today’s House and Senate leaders are less capable artists in large part because they work in a more chaotic studio. Yes, we have Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), Bob Bennett (R-UT), Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR), among others, working to forge a consensus. They are skilled and dedicated. But they are marginalized by their more partisan colleagues. Only Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) seems adept at the art of the possible while under duress.

How did we get to this sorry state? The answer is in Evans’ statement: Another way to lose control is to ignore something when you should address it.

Hard choices are required

Obama should have known that he would have to lead with more than rhetoric. He should have realized that in a chaotic environment, his leadership could count for even more. Perhaps he is afraid to commit. He may not want to make the hard choices and suffer the consequences. He made it a practice in the Illinois Senate and then the U.S. Senate to avoid tough votes, often voting “present.” He hoped that others would work things out and make the tough decisions. He knows that as president, he will get the credit when a bill is passed and he signs it in front of dozens of cameras. There is little downside.

An American public that was predisposed to support Obama and accept reform of the healthcare system awaited leadership. Meantime, the public became so concerned that, today, nearly six of ten oppose what they think is the Obama plan. The Democrats are suggesting that, if the Republicans do not cooperate, they will slam dunk a bill through confrontation, intimidation and parliamentary tactics. Republicans vow to attempt to block anything so long as they get a political benefit. Of course, they don’t say it quite that way. This is not leadership; this is politics.

We have elected a president who seems unable to do what must be done to get meaningful healthcare reform enacted. He may learn on the job. Or maybe not. We, his employers, will want to take his current performance into account the next time he announces a huge reform program. For his part, Obama may want to remember one thing:

With presidential leadership, we might have had real healthcare reform. Now, we may get something called healthcare reform, but it is likely to be full of problems and unintended consequences. Slapped together, it may make Rube Goldberg look good.

Presidents cannot vote “present.”

About Radnor Reports

Ken Feltman is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists. He is retired chairman of Radnor Inc., an international political consulting and government relations firm in Washington, D.C. Known as a coalition builder, he has participated in election campaigns and legislative efforts in the United States and several other countries.
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