History is replete with examples, both great and small, in which a sudden shift in strategy has borne great dividends. In the 1934 NFL Championship Game, the so-called Sneakers Game, the trailing Giants attempted to cope with an icy field by switching from cleats to sneakers in the second half. Trailing 13-3 in the 3rd quarter, the Giants subsequently scored 27 unanswered points and beat the Bears 30-13. The lesson: Unanticipated conditions often require unexpected tactics.
Another example, which might resonate with President Obama and congressional Democrats, took place in 1996. A fresh-faced young Democratic president, Bill Clinton, ran as the man from Hope. But his attempt to facilitate a government takeover of the American health-care system led to his running into serious political difficulties with the American people. In the election of 1994, his party lost both the House and the Senate.
Subsequent to the takeover, Republicans and a minority of congressional Democrats advanced “workfare,” a long-overdue welfare-reform effort. But Clinton had twice vetoed such legislation. Just months before the 1996 election, however, Clinton signed the bill with relatively minor changes. The move angered liberals in his own party. But this bipartisan legislation became one of his administration’s signature achievements and contributed greatly to his being reelected. A sudden shift toward genuine bipartisanship paid great dividends.
Alas, President Obama’s recently announced health-care summit is not such a shift. Within hours of the announcement, a White House official, no doubt nervous about complaints from the Left, told the Washington Post that the Blair House summit on health care “is not starting over.… Don’t make any mistake about that.” The official added that “We are coming with our plan.”
In truth, if the president wants his latest unorthodox maneuver (announced in an unorthodox manner) to look like more than a publicity stunt — or like more than a way to tempt Republicans into another moment like Rep. Joe Wilson’s outburst — then he must embrace a new and genuinely bipartisan path. He needs to embrace an approach that would lower health costs, rather than raise them; give Americans more, rather than less, control over their health-care dollars; and increase the number of uninsured much more efficiently — in a manner that wouldn’t break the bank or rob from already nearly-fiscally insolvent Medicare.
In other words, a true shift in strategy, and serious bipartisanship, would require first scrapping his failed government-centric overhaul that Americans have so resoundingly rejected.
If the Democrats were to embrace this course, they would soon become aware of a wide variety of simpler options that could garner bipartisan support and accomplish their professed goal of lowering health costs and increasing the number of Americans with insurance coverage.
We have advanced a small-bill proposal that offers seven real reforms (the last a combination of smaller reforms), which together would lower health costs, significantly increase the number of insured, and be deficit-neutral. The small bill would meet the American people’s goals for health-care reform — which the current Democratic bills would not — while costing only about 7 percent as much as the Democratic plans. (If this seems too good to be true, it merely shows how bad the Democratic plans really are.)
Liberals would likely resist such a targeted, affordable approach. Republican Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts Senate seat largely on the strength of his message that we scrap the current bills and start over with an honest attempt at real reform. In the days before Brown’s win, the New Republic’s Jonathan Chait presented four options for the Democrats should the Democrats lose the election. He called starting over — which would entail heeding Brown’s advice — “option 4: Crawl into a hole and die.”
Nevertheless, there are a lot of very vulnerable congressional Democrats who would relish the chance to back something like the small bill, which most congressional Republicans, and most Americans, would enthusiastically support.
Progressives might think that starting over with a genuinely bipartisan approach is akin to crawling into a hole and dying, but the Democrats do need to recognize that they are already in a hole. If President Obama and congressional Democrats were to borrow from historical examples and employ a sudden shift in strategy, they could get a big win and achieve meaningful reform in the process.
If they really want a government takeover, they will never pursue such a strategy. But if they really want to lower health costs and increase insurance coverage — as the President claims — then now is the time for a sudden shift toward a truly bipartisan, sensible, small-bill approach.