Posted by: Jeff | September 3, 2009

Goldilocks Can’t Help Us With Health Care

In the name of keeping things lively, I’ll take a whack at Joe (Edwards and Klein) for this post.

So Joe Klein thinks Obama has overlearned the lessons of Clinton’s approach to health care. This may be correct. It may turn out that the real determining factors of Clinton’s defeat, and of Obama’s defeat or victory, will be contingent political or structural matters unique to the two legislative moments. Whether the administration in question takes the lead on writing the legislation or lets Congress take the lead may actually have been trivial factors in both instances.

My question is, How was anyone, including the Obama Administration, supposed to know that beforehand? Would Klein have preferred that they underlearn the lessons of the Clinton effort? I doubt it. So what Klein is asking for is a “Goldilocks” approach to the historical lessons of health care. Don’t overlearn or underlearn, but get it just right.

Which isn’t terribly helpful. For the most part, nobody ever gets anything “just right.” They were always guaranteed to either overlearn or underlearn matters, to swing a bit too far in one direction or the other. And frankly, overlearning is the preferable error, as it indicates a high level of self-criticism, and it’s always better to have too much of that rather than too little. The paradox here is you can never know if you’ve applied the lessons of hindsight correctly – except in hindsight. So it seems to me the prescience Klein is demanding of the Obama Administration borders on the superhuman.

I suspect the reason for this is the quasi-mystical importance most Americans attach to the notion of “presidential leadership.” We tend to think presidential leadership can solve anything. And when a president does something unusual, like voluntarily forgoing that leadership role, we generally assume that’s to blame if anything goes wrong.

But that assumption just isn’t a realistic reflection of the President’s power when it comes to domestic politics. There’s a reason the Congress is described in Article I of the Constitution. It’s the body that holds pretty much all the cards when it comes to lawmaking. The President has the bully pulpit and the veto pen, and at the end of the day that’s really it. Congress is its own thing, with its own culture, customs, structures, interests and incentives, and there’s not all that much any president can do to bend that body to his or her will. The fate of health care is, and always has been, in the hands of our legislative branch.

*UPDATEThis piece in The New Republic, by Jonathan Cohn, touches on a similar theme by way of another question in the health care debate.



  1. Point taken Jeff. Why should any of us study history if we don’t want to learn anything from it? I get it. But this is politics, and I’ll use the “chess game” metaphor. The President working with Congress is like a chess game, you need plan out a strategy and anticipate moves along the way. Just moving differently from the previous player that lost (Clinton) doesn’t it make it a smart strategy. Yes, learn from other player’s mistakes, but you gotta come up with your own strategy. It’s a fair criticism.

    Public Option? Is he for it or against it? Beats me. Pretty mixed signal for something that many legislators think is a deal breaker (either for or against). And his staff knew that. So why be coy about it? Being vague is not a good strategy at a detailed-specific reform like this.

  2. I don’t think the Obama Administration lacked a strategy. They just settled on a strategy a lot of people don’t like.

    And no, just doing something different from the previous player doesn’t make a strategy inherently smart. But if you see the guy before you go down to defeat, generally you’re going to think that doing the opposite of what he did would probably be a good call. Now, it might not be. But to know that beforehand, you need some applicable reason. What reason was there, at the time, for the Obama Administration to think taking the opposite of the Clinton approach wasn’t the smart move? None that I can see.

    As for the public option, does it matter what Obama’s position on it is? Its fate will probably be decided by political brinksmanship in the Congress. It’s not clear to me that he could have any significant effect on that process by clarifying his position. Even if he could, my guess is the best time for that would come near the end, not the beginning.

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