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By Gil Troy, HNN, 11-4-10

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University. He is the author of “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents” (Basic Books, 2008). His latest book, co-edited with Vincent J. Cannato, is “Living in the Eighties” (Oxford University Press, 2009).

The American voters gave President Barack Obama a good, old-fashioned political whupping on Tuesday.  It was a stunning political reversal as Mr. Yes We Can became Mr. Why Can’t They Understand and Appreciate Me? President Barack Obama must learn his lesson from this political drubbing.  To redeem his presidency, he must do what he originally promised to do, lead from the center—humbly and substantively.

The rise of the Tea Party, the loss of many moderate Democrats in swing districts, and the reelections of many leading liberals, led some politicos to conclude that Americans do not want centrist leadership.  This conclusion reinforces the Fox News-MSNBC view of the world as divided between good people – those who agree with me— and bad partisans—everybody else.  Instead, the results reflect American structural anomalies, where moderates come from divided districts and extremists come from strongly partisan districts.  During electoral tidal waves, the crucial swing voters veer left or right, wiping out moderates as extremists survive.

Yet with the end of the 2010 midterms marking the start of the 2012 presidential campaign, Barack Obama should worry that independent voters abandoned him en masse.  It is now clear that Obama erred by fighting for health care reform before lowering the unemployment rate.  And it is now clear that having the health care reform pass by such a partisan, polarizing vote, undermined Obama’s entire presidential leadership project.  The twentieth century’s two greatest pieces of social legislation—the 1935 Social Security Act and the 1964 Civil Rights Act—passed, after hard fights, with bipartisan support.  That the twenty-first-century’s first great piece of social legislation passed without Republican support reflects Obama’s broader leadership failure.

Obama 2.0. must resurrect one of the most powerful messages—and successful tactics—which propelled his meteoric rise to the presidency, his lyrical centrism.  Barack Obama did not just promise “hope and change,” he promised a new kind of politics.  In Audacity of Hope, Obama positioned himself as a post-partisan centrist who would resist Washington’s ways.  Central to his appeal was his lyrical, multicultural nationalism, exemplified by his eloquent denunciation of the red-state-blue-state paradigm in his extraordinary keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic national convention.  Americans did not just hire Obama to be president, they hired him to be that kind of a president, one who would reach out across the aisle, who would sing a song of national unity and purpose that was substantive, pragmatic, results-oriented, not just lofty and lovely.

Unfortunately, as president, Obama has stilled his own voice, and failed to reconcile with Republicans.  True, Republicans share responsibility for being truculent and obstructionist.  But true centrism requires finding that golden path, that middle ground.  Instead of delegating the highly partisan congress to craft the health care reform, instead of negotiating so desperately to forge his Democratic coalition, Obama needed to deliver bipartisan support for such a monumental shift in America’s status quo.  The Social Security and Civil Rights bills quickly became part of the national consensus, thanks to the consensus-building presidential leadership which ensured bipartisan passage.  By contrast, abortion has festered as an issue for decades because the Supreme Court legalized women’s right to choose, circumventing any kind of populist, consensus-building, democratic process.

Having demonstrated great potential as a cultural leader in 2008, Obama should spearhead a fight against the gong-show-governance emanating from cable TV coverage of American politics.  Watching MSNBC on Election Night, watching Keith Olbermann and company shout away at Congressman Eric Cantor—who enjoyed giving back as good as he got—I was struck by the cable echo chamber’s violent distortions.  Politicians who spend their time appearing on these shows forget that only a small percentage of Americans are watching.  The pols begin to think that everyone wants to play politics as a blood sport.  Politicians should simply stop appearing on these shows until they foster civility.

What a shame that we needed the comedian Jon Stewart to confront the Crossfire crowd in 2004.  No politician had the guts to reject the format that fostered fighting, that rewarded unreason.  Franklin Roosevelt called the presidency pre-eminently a place of moral leadership.  Obama should take the lead with substantive moves to cut down the culture of confrontation.

Obama also has to avoid presidential preening.  Blaming his losses on miscommunication not substantive policy differences will lead him and his staff to focus on how things appear rather than what they should be.  The elder statesman Dean Acheson once dismissed Richard Nixon by comparing him to a shortstop so concerned about how he looks when fielding, he misses the ball.  Obama has always struggled with a grandiose and highly self-conscious side.  Fighting for his political future, he needs to focus on substance, cultivating the big-tent governance he promised the American people.

In the 1950s, Joseph Stalin dismissed Mao Zedong as a margarine communist.  It was a delicious phrase, capturing the gruff former farm boy’s disgust for a product that looked like butter, but wasn’t.  So far, Obama has been a margarine moderate, making superficial gestures toward dialogue and compromise, then sticking to one side of the aisle.

Obama still has the time and the national good will to recover.  Most Republican campaign commercials targeted Nancy Pelosi, or Harry Reid, or big government, not the president.  This nuance reflected Obama’s personal popularity, despite his 55 percent negative job approval rating.  Moreover, the economy could still revive, unemployment could fall, the Republicans could self-destruct by misreading this election as an invitation to showcase their extremists.

Political greatness, in fact personal greatness, does not come from winning all the time, but from knowing how to turn devastating defeats into incredible opportunities.  The true test of Barack Obama the man and the president has begun.

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[Article Image]By passing health care reform, the president has become a transformational leader, although not a post-partisan one.

By Gil Troy, The Mark, 3-26-10

A great orator I know once told me that there are three versions of every speech – the one you plan, the one you actually deliver, and the one you wish you delivered. Similarly, there are three presidencies – the one the candidate promises, the one that actually takes place, and the one the president, partisans, and historians argue about for decades to come. With the passage of his historic health care bill, President Barack Obama both fulfilled and moved beyond the presidency he promised, shaped his administration indelibly as liberal and social activist, and secured his place in history.

To pass this legislation, Obama had to break the vow that had defined him politically and helped launch him into the White House. He failed to become the post-partisan, red and blue together healer he hoped to be; what the American people elected him to be. But he did fulfill the promise he made in January 2008 to be a “transformational” leader. At the time, he offended his rival Hillary Clinton and many other Democrats by saying bluntly that “Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not, that Bill Clinton did not,” and that Reagan “put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.”

Barack Obama has bet his entire political future on the assumption that America is ready for the change he just shoved through Congress. And make no mistake about it, he had to push and shove, scratch and claw to achieve his victory. Obama was determined not to repeat the mistakes of the Clinton health care debacle of 1993 and 1994. Rather than sending a bill from the White House down Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill, Obama let Congressional Democrats mostly define the bill.

The downside of this approach is that the health care bill did not get even one Republican vote in the House of Representatives on Sunday, a devastating comment on the state of partisanship today. This marks a dramatic drop from the bipartisan high of election night 2008 and from the usual American standard for passing historic legislation. Both Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Social Security reform and Lyndon Johnson’s Medicare reform enjoyed substantial bipartisan support. The upside is that Obama has a major victory, despite having been counted out just a few weeks ago, when the Republican unknown Scott Brown won the Massachusetts Senate seat Democrats assumed was theirs because the late Senator Ted Kennedy had sat in it for so long.

Power is like a muscle – the more it is exercised, the more it grows. Obama’s victory will make him stronger, and will bring the nation closer to him. The Republican fear, of course, is that Obama’s nation is an abomination. Obama does not have enough time to prove them wrong when it comes to health care. Even he admits that the investment demanded by the legislation will take years to pay off. But he can win the larger debate, at least in the short term, if he applies the same determination and vision he recently demonstrated to the defining challenge of his administration – producing jobs, jobs, and more jobs for the millions of Americans suffering from unemployment thanks to the great crash of 2008.

The health care fight highlighted Americans’ continuing ambivalence about big government. There is a strong anti-government, “don’t tread on me” tradition in the United States. Not everyone who objected was a crazed, Fox News-watching, Rush Limbaugh-listening, Tea Party-attending extremist. Moreover, the fight over abortion reflected another fear, namely, that government funding of certain procedures reflects government approval of certain actions. The controversy highlights the high stakes involved.

While the Republicans immediately called for a repeal, history would suggest that these efforts are doomed. The forward momentum of the American social welfare state – like the Canadian one – is hard to stop. Even during the so-called “Reagan revolution,” there was no major rollback of core social services, despite all the rhetoric.

The great health care debate of 2009 is now evolving into the great health care victory of 2010. Already, the glowing editorials suggest that Barack Obama has restored some of the glow to his presidency. He is also well on his way to earning the compliment one of my students gave recently to Lyndon Johnson: “He is the most Canadian American president I can think of.”

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 12-7-09

This piece was originally published in Policy Options, November 2009, pp. 25-30. It is based largely on Gil Troy’s The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2009),

In pushing health care reform, President Barack Obama is confronted by contemporary critics and haunted by history. Americans are ambivalent about big government, not just since Ronald Reagan but since the American Revolution. A review of American attitudes toward government since the Revolution demonstrates this tension between Americans’ desire for government help and their fear of government intrusiveness. Obama also must learn from Bill Clinton’s health care reform failures. Like Obama, Clinton was popular and aware of the Great Society’s failures. Nevertheless, Clinton failed to make the sale, as Republicans caricatured the program as a big government power grab.

In pushing health care reform, President Barack Obama is confronted by contemporary critics and haunted by history. Obama has to learn from the last Democratic president’s failure. Bill Clinton also championed health care reform. Moreover, Obama cannot forget that Americans are ambivalent about big government, not only since the Ronald Reagan era but since the American Revolution. 

Americans are torn. Most retain enough of their nation’s historic fear of executive power to dislike big government in the abstract. But after seventy-five years of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deals and Harry Truman’s Fair Deal, of John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, Americans are addicted to many of the government programs that together make their government big, their tax bills high, their bureaucracy dense – as well as their society a kinder, gentler place to live. Usually, Democrats miscalculate by overlooking this traditional fear of big government; Republicans err by overstepping and eliminating essential programs that Americans now take for granted.


Although the American Revolution was far less radical than the French or Russian Revolutions, Americans did rebel against executive power. The Revolutionaries’ experience with the King of England – and his governors in the colonies – soured a generation on strong, centralized government. The younger men of the revolution such as Alexander Hamilton, who assisted George Washington in trying to win the war, better understood the need for an effective government. They pushed for the new Constitution in 1787, replacing the Articles of Confederation that bore the mark of the revolutionary struggle by keeping the national government weaker than the states, and the executive impotent compared to the Congress.


Still, the Constitution established a federal government that was not supposed to overwhelm either “We the People” or “these United States,” as the country was called at the time. Moreover, there was a strong ethos of self-sufficiency. People were supposed to take care of themselves, especially considering America’s riches.


This question of how vigorous the new federal government should be split George Washington’s Cabinet. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, having opposed executive power so eloquently in the Declaration of Independence, fresh from admiring the French Revolution up close, led the charge with his friend James Madison against a strong government – and executive. When Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton proposed a National Bank in 1791, Jefferson opposed this power grab by subtly misquoting the Constitution. Analyzing what he called the Constitution’s “foundation,” Jefferson wrote to Washington that the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution declared that “all powers not delegated to the United States, by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States or to the people.” Jefferson feared that taking “a single step” beyond Congress’s clearly drawn boundaries meant seizing “a boundless field of power,” with no limits. In fact, the Constitution reads “the” powers not “all” powers. The original text still preserves the prerogatives of the state and the people, but less globally.


Pushing back, Hamilton hastily drafted his opinion defending the Bank of the United States as constitutional. Hamilton endorsed a “liberal” reading of what is known as the “elastic clause,” Article I, Section 8, authorizing the new Congress “to make all laws necessary and proper for carrying into execution” the powers granted to the Federal government. Appreciating the clause’s “peculiar comprehensiveness” regarding the government’s many implied powers, Hamilton said that Jefferson’s strict reading made the clause unduly “restrictive,” an “idea never before entertained.” Hamilton said it would be as if the Constitution only authorized laws that were “absolutely” or “indispensably” “necessary and proper.”


            This Hamilton-Jefferson divide defined the debate for more than a century. Jeffersonian liberals wanted small, non-intrusive government, thinking of farmers as ideal citizens, and trusting self-sufficiency over any kind of government patronage. Hamiltonian conservatives wanted a larger and more vigorous government to help America develop, trusting private-public partnerships to serve the economy and the citizenry.


            While saving the union in the 1860s, President Abraham Lincoln articulated a vision of the nation, united, effective and supreme, forever changing the power balance between the federal government and the states. After the Civil War, these United States became the United States. Moreover, the often forgotten part of Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party agenda advocated a more activist approach to helping farmers and laborers, using national power to improve individuals’ quality of life.


            With the growth of government – and corporations – during the Civil War, with the rise of a national currency, the greenback, a national debt, and national income taxes, American business leaders noticed that government involvement could restrict their growth as much as feed it. In what the political scientist Clinton Rossiter called “the Great Intellectual Train Robbery of American History,” conservative business leaders hijacked Jeffersonian small government liberalism to suit their own purposes. The “Laissez Faire” doctrine they embraced suggested that government should step back and let corporations thrive. Connected to this hands-off policy was a notion that the poor could fend for themselves – or be taken care of locally, by relatives, churches, volunteers.


As the nation grew, so did the government, and so did the sense of collective responsibility. Both the rural-based Populist movement of the 1870s, 1880s and the 1890s, and the more urban-based Progressive movement that began in the 1890s and lasted through the 1920s, mobilized the government to protect the people against corporate fat cats and the vicissitudes of life. Still, the Great Depression of the 1930s initially highlighted the limits of Progressivism – and the continuing American allergy to dramatic government intervention. Thomas Jefferson’s ideas survived, propped up by private-property protecting business interests who rejected government redistribution or regulation as anti-American. The despair spreading through society, combined with the hopes generated by radicals in Europe and Soviet Russia, challenged American stability and values. While only a few actually waved the banner of revolution, many feared that the American economic system was broken, and the sclerotic American political system made it unfixable.


In these dark days, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s infectious optimism brightened America’s mood, while adjusting the country’s ideology. Roosevelt’s “First Hundred Days” in office set a template of presidential action and established numerous precedents for direct government intervention in American life. Mixing Jefferson’s democratic populism with Hamilton’s top-down centralization, Roosevelt created big government liberalism.  “I am not for a return to the definition of liberty under which for many years a free people were gradually regimented into the service” of capitalism, Roosevelt said.  Liberalism “is plain English for a changed concept of the duty and responsibility of government toward economic life.”


Using appeals to the collective, justifying his emergency actions with military analogies, Roosevelt offered a three-pronged program. First, he mobilized the power of government to offer immediate relief, shifting the responsibility from churches, community groups, and relatives to the local, state, and federal governments. Then, he tried to jump-start a recovery, putting the government in the business of micromanaging the economy – and violating the longstanding American aversion to federal budget deficits. Finally, he sought broader reforms to institutionalize the changes and avoid a repeat.


Suddenly, the executive branch was choreographing currency shifts, bringing electricity to the South, eliminating corporate abuses, subsidizing individual homeowners. The government provided the old with pensions, the disabled with support, and the poor with sustenance while hiring millions through a new “alphabet soup” of agencies, the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), the PWA (Public Works Administration), the AAA (Agricultural Adjustment Administration), and the NRA (National Recovery Administration). The “first duty of government is to protect the economic welfare of all the people in all sections and in all groups,” Roosevelt said in a 1938 Fireside Chat. This casual statement reflected a revolutionary departure from Alexander Hamilton’s vision, let alone Thomas Jefferson’s.


The Social Security Act of 1935 was arguably the single most dramatic New Deal reform. The Act helped the elderly poor immediately and began a federal pension plan gradually. It eventually offered unemployment insurance, federal aid to dependent mothers and children, and assistance to the blind and handicapped. Half a century of Progressive agitation culminated in this legislation. Roosevelt made this great leap seem like a logical next step. His genius for making revolutionary changes appear inevitable built popular support for these audacious steps. The Democratic Party became America’s party, the party of activist government protecting the middle class and the poor.


Roosevelt wanted to provide “cradle to grave” security, but constructing a workable plan took years. Advisers and activists debated whether there should be cash grants or welfare programs, whether support should be national or state-based, whether social welfare guaranteed dignity or destroyed individual responsibility.  Such comprehensive social insurance deviated from American constitutional practice and offended many conservatives, both rich and poor. The National Association of Manufactures blasted this attempt at “ultimate socialistic control of life and industry.”


To soften the blow, Roosevelt injected an all-American centrist twist into this legislative masterstroke. Workers would pay into the Social Security system for decades before getting their payouts. This innovation reinforced the sanctity of private property, individual dignity, and government centrality. “We put those payroll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral, and political right to collect their pensions and their unemployment benefits,” Roosevelt explained. The individual contributions also guaranteed the program’s future. “With those taxes in there,” Roosevelt declared, “no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program.”


After vigorous debate, most members of Congress could not oppose helping the American community’s weakest, sickest, and oldest members. The House passed the bill 371 to 33. The Senate bill passed two months later, in June 1935, 76 to 6. Roosevelt’s Social Security Act truly was a bipartisan bill enjoying overwhelming support.


Roosevelt’s “New Deal” did not end the Great Depression. But it reassured Americans. It repositioned the government and the president in the center of American political, economic, and cultural life. The advent of World War II jumpstarted the economy – and launched a half-century of unprecedented economic prosperity. America became the world’s first mass middle-class society.


The war also brought about a level of government intervention, regulation, and, of course, taxation, that would have been denounced as “Bolshevik” by millions at the start of Roosevelt’s reign. But step by step, improvisation by improvisation, speech by speech, and crisis by crisis, Roosevelt had brought Americans to a new approach – and understanding. Europeans and Canadians remained surprised by America’s limited welfare state; thoughtful Americans with some sense of history were surprised at how far this initially reluctant giant had moved toward government activism.


Still, for all his talk of “Cradle to Grave” coverage, FDR could not get any bill for universal health care out of committee. Harry Truman’s Fair Deal expanded Roosevelt’s program, but Truman was no more successful in getting a health care bill to the floor of the Congress.  In the 1950s, by maintaining signature New Deal programs such as Social Security, the first Republican President since the New Deal, Dwight Eisenhower ratified Roosevelt’s vision and guaranteed that America would maintain a generous welfare state. Eisenhower also averted a bruising partisan battle.


The federal government’s meteoric growth and the equally quick emergence of a national focus meant that the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s could function – and succeed – as a national movement fighting an injustice rooted most intensely in one region, the South. The Civil Rights movement’s success in an age of big government and national television furthered the development of a national conversation about once local problems — and the search for national solutions. John Kennedy’s tragically brief presidency raised expectations further.


 Increasingly, the debate during Kennedy’s years was no longer “should the federal government be involved,” but “how should the federal government solve particular problems.” What was so revolutionary about this shift was that it no longer seemed remarkable. Government had become so big, so centralized and so central in Americans’ lives, many forgot how novel a phenomenon the welfare state was in American history. It would take conservatives who began mobilizing in the 1960s around Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan nearly twenty years to remind Americans that questioning big government was not marginal or anti-American, but rooted in some of the most fundamental American political traditions and assumptions. Increasingly, it seemed that Americans liked their government small in the abstract, but big when it came to helping them.


Lyndon Johnson became president in 1963 after John Kennedy’s assassination trusting in a governmental solution for nearly every problem.  “The roots of hate are poverty and disease and illiteracy, and they are broad in the land,” Johnson proclaimed in an early speech, planning to legislate these scourges into oblivion. Johnson linked the challenges of Communism, civil rights, and poverty. He wanted to win the Cold War by perfecting America, vindicating democracy worldwide.


In May 1964, Johnson redefined America’s historic mission at the University of Michigan’s commencement ceremonies. After settling the land, Americans developed an industrialized infrastructure. During this next stage Americans would go beyond mere riches and power, “to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization.” Johnson envisioned a “Great Society,” providing “abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice…. The ‘Great Society’ is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents…. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.”


Propelled by his electoral landslide in November 1964, Lyndon Johnson surpassed the New Deal. In 1964 and 1965, Johnson muscled through an ambitious array of laws that transformed the way the government helped the poor, the sick, the old, the young. Eventually, staffers counted 207 laws as “landmark” legislative achievements. Under Johnson, the federal budget first topped $100 billion. Aid to the poor nearly doubled, health programs tripled, and education programs quadrupled. LBJ outdid FDR by enacting the 1965 Medicare amendment to FDR’s Social Security Act. Harry and Bess Truman received the first two Medicare cards. Medicare was for all older Americans (and some disabled citizens), theoretically paid for by their own contributions when they worked; another program, Medicaid was a means-tested program for the poorest Americans, and involved state participation as well.


Alas, Johnson could not legislate away America’s problems. Even as Congress passed a landmark civil rights law, the Voting Rights Act, riots erupted in Watts, the Los Angeles ghetto. The Vietnam War became Johnson’s albatross – and America’s burden, wasting billions of dollars, sacrificing 50,000 American lives, and bleeding away America’s credibility and confidence. Johnson’s Great Society hopes sank in the Vietnam morass. Johnson retired prematurely, refusing to run for re-election in 1968.


The Great Society’s failure spurred the Reagan Revolution – a backlash against big government. Ronald Reagan spoke eloquently about up-from-the-bootstraps, do-it-yourself American individualism, saying the Great Society failed because Big Government never worked. When Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, he understood his mission as trying to restore Americans’ faith in government, by showing that government could be effective without getting too big.


Ultimately, Clinton failed to enact health care reform because he missed the center, he forgot how deeply skeptical Americans remained about big government.  Few remember how likely prospects for change appeared in 1993.  “America’s ready for health-care reform and so are we,” South Carolina’s Republican Governor, Carroll Campbell, declared, as Republicans scrambled to offer their own alternatives.


Clinton – and his overbearing wife Hillary Rodham Clinton – squandered that early mix of bipartisan good will and political fear so necessary for an ambitious reform effort in a divided Congress.  In what was widely perceived as a payoff for her wifely loyalty amid all the adultery rumors in the 1992 campaign, the First Lady chaired this ambitious health-reform effort. Rather than developing a general plan with Congress, Mrs. Clinton presented a fait accompli, a byzantine 1,354 page program more suited to the big-government ambitions of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson than to the small-government era Ronald Reagan pioneered. 


Rather than adjusting the elaborate plan to mollify Republicans, the president and his wife went rigid, and attacked their critics. Hillary Clinton refused to compromise. She urged her husband to wave a pen in his 1994 State of the Union address, promising to veto “legislation that does not guarantee every American private health insurance that can never be taken away.” On the stump, the First Lady bashed doctors, pharmaceutical companies, insurance executives, and conservatives. Mrs. Clinton mocked those who "drive down highways paid for by government funds" and "love the defense department” but object “when it comes to … trying to be a compassionate and caring nation." 


The Clintons’ personal scandals, Congressional counterattacks, and media nitpicking gradually undermined the effort. Emboldened, Republicans began following the ideologues rather than the moderates. "There has been almost total surrender amidst the largest power grab in U.S. history," former Education Secretary William Bennett first complained in October 1993. On “Meet the Press,” The Republican Congressional leader Newt Gingrich denounced the plan as “the most destructively big-government plan ever proposed.”


As the Clintons lost control of the health care debate, two powerful streams in modern American ideology merged. Cartoons of the "Evil Queen" offering up a Pandora’s box of "Socialized Medicine" linked ancient and modern obsessions about government power and powerful women. Partisan Republicans and cynical reporters described an out-of-control, crusading radical feminist and her henpecked, secretly liberal husband imposing another arrogant, expensive Great Society failure on the American people. “NATIONAL HEALTH CARE: THE COMPASSION OF THE IRS! THE EFFICIENCY OF THE POST OFFICE! ALL AT PENTAGON PRICES!” one bumper sticker seen in 1994 proclaimed.  This crude caricature encapsulated many of the anti-government themes developed in the 1980s and demonstrated the Clinton opponents’ success in transforming the public debate.


Most dramatically, the health insurance industry created a fictional couple to balance out the presidential couple. In a $14 million advertising campaign, compounded by all the free media coverage it generated, the American people met Harry and Louise, two middle-class Americans struggling with their bills, celebrating Thanksgiving, going to the office – all the while debating the health care reform. In one commercial, the announcer warned:  ”Things are going to change, and not all for the better. The government may force us to pick from a few health care plans designed by government bureaucrats.”   ”They choose,” Harry then says, and his wife chimes in, ”We lose.” In another, Louise tells Harry: ”There’s gotta be a better way.” Furious – and reflecting just how effectively the Harry and Louise message had penetrated, Mrs. Clinton snapped in November that the insurance companies “have the gall to run TV ads that there is a better way, the very industry that has brought us to the brink of bankruptcy because of the way that they have financed health care.” Speaking of Harry and Louise, Ben Goddard, the president of the agency that invented them, exulted:  “These are people” average Americans “feel comfortable with; they might invite them to a Christmas party.” Liberals and Democrats tried to mobilize, but no reply was as effective as the “Harry and Louise” onslaught.


  The Clintons’ operatic marital dynamics kept the President wed to Hillary Clinton’s rigid strategy even as their initiative fizzled. The Clintons further alienated Congress by bypassing the usual procedures and slipping this major reform into a budget bill. President Clinton did not throw himself into the fight as intensely or as nimbly as he had with the budget and or the North American Free Trade Agreement. The bill withered on the congressional committee vine, neither the Senate nor the House never even voted on it.  Bill Clinton’s failure to deliver even a compromised health care bill symbolized a broader failure to fight effectively for policies and principles with the same tenacity and agility he would display in 1998 when fighting for survival during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. 


Barack Obama’s people have studied the Clinton case carefully – many, including White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, witnessed the failure from within the Clinton Administration. Obama’s decision to led Congress draft the bill, for example, reflects an attempt to avoid the dynamics that hurt the Clintons whereby the White House sent legislation down Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill for approval. But the real test is yet to come. Can Obama convince Americans that universal health care coverage should be as American as Social Security (if not apple pie)? Or will the Republicans play to Americans’ traditional suspicion that Big Government will do more harm than good? 

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-16-09

When Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine voted for the Senate Finance Committee’s health bill this week, Democrats rejoiced. “We have today a bipartisan bill,” White House Press Secretary Joe Gibbs exulted. While it made sense for Democrats to welcome Snowe’s support after an excruciating, high-stakes process, one moderate maverick crossing the aisle does not make the bill truly bipartisan. Mistaking a deviation for a trend in politics is like mistaking one defection for a peace treaty during wartime.

Wherever one stands on the health care debate, and on Senator Snowe’s decision, it is misleading to call this week’s tokenism bipartisanship. True bipartisanship means working together, building bridges, finding common interests, forging consensus. Bipartisanship is Republicans and Democrats spurred by the graciousness of John McCain and Barack Obama, celebrating the election of the first African-American President last November. Bipartisanship is McCain and 13 other centrist Senators creating a “Gang of Fourteen” to approve Republican judicial nominations so as to head off the “nuclear option” threatening Senate prerogatives Democrats were enjoying. And bipartisanship is the shared feelings of mourning mingled with patriotism after 9/11, epitomized by dozens of tearful, subdued members of Congress spontaneously singing “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps hours after the downing of Flight 93, which may have been targeting that very site.

Historically, true bipartisanship occurred when righteous renegades or statesmanlike party leaders led others to create a broad coalition, even if reluctantly. Back in 1964, Everett Dirksen, a Republican from Illinois, the Senate Minority Leader, was the key figure in breaking the 83-day filibuster against the landmark Civil Rights Bill. President Lyndon Johnson gave Senator Dirksen his famous “treatment,” understanding the secret formula for Congressional cajolery: one part flattery, one part bribery, leavened by a sense of history. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, deployed by Johnson as point man, recalled wooing Dirksen aggressively but elegantly: “I began a public massage of his ego, and appealed to his vanity. I said he should look at this issue as ‘a moral issue, not a partisan one.’ The gentle pressure left room for him to be the historically important figure in our struggle, the statesman above bipartisanship….” More crassly, Humphrey admitted he even would have been willing to kiss “Dirksen’s ass on the Capitol steps.”

Humphrey finally succeeded without going that far. Dirksen broke the filibuster, quoting Victor Hugo: “Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come. The time has come for equality … in education and in employment. It will not be stayed or denied it is here.” The cloture vote passed with a surprisingly wide margin of 71 to 29. When asked how he became a force pushing for civil rights Dirksen grandly replied, “I am involved in mankind, and whatever the skin, we are all included in mankind.”

Dirksen’s sense of history made him immortal – they named a Senate Office building after him, among other things. Moreover he saved the Republican Party. Today, whatever else their standing with African-Americans may be at any particular moment, Republicans can say with pride that they helped pass the 1964 Civil Rights bill, thanks to Everett Dirksen.

Similarly, in the 1940s, Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg helped lead his party and the nation away from a pinched, provincial, isolationism. President Harry Truman could construct his emerging Cold War foreign policy as bipartisan, thanks especially to Vandenberg. On Friday, April 13, 1945, his first full day in office, Truman lunched with seventeen congressional leaders. Vandenberg hailed this unprecedented move for ending Franklin Roosevelt’s era of presidential unilateralism. Vandenberg’s pronouncement that “politics stops at the water’s edge” built popular consensus behind America’s containment strategy. Vandenberg remained a Republican and occasionally contradicted the President, saying that frank exchanges facilitated true unity. The senator saw himself leading the “loyal opposition” putting “national security ahead of partisan advantage.”

Senator Vandenberg’s journey from ardent partisan isolationist to leading bipartisan interventionist reflected the massive ideological shift Franklin Roosevelt facilitated, and Harry Truman completed. Vandenberg’s rift with the Republican isolationists underlined the continuing American resistance to becoming a world superpower. America did not even have a standing army. Many isolationists such as “Mr. Republican,” Ohio Senator Robert Taft, reluctantly accepted the fight against fascism but hoped returning to normalcy included restoring America’s characteristic insulation.

Facing a divided country and a treacherous world, Truman crusaded for cooperation. In his first speech to Congress, on April 16, 1945, Truman said only “a united nation deeply devoted to the highest ideals” could provide the “enlightened leadership” the world needed. This strategy, and both Vandenberg’s and Truman’s good works, were vindicated repeatedly, culminating with Soviet Communism’s collapse, which historians credit as a bipartisan victory.

By contrast, a century earlier the “Compromise of 1850” was not much of a compromise — or too much of a compromise. No one was happy. Henry Clay’s nationalist attempt to craft an omnibus package had failed, rejected in the summer of 1850. The legislation passed – but ultimately failed – because the young Democratic Senator from Illinois Stephen A. Douglas crafted a series of shifting congressional coalitions passing individual parts of the legislation, reflecting sectional differences not national concerns. Southerners supported the individual planks which pleased Southerners, while Northern representatives endorsed the pro-Northern legislation. There was no reconciliation, legislative or otherwise. The misnamed Compromise of 1850 failed to find common ground or common terms, the essential elements of bipartisanship. In playing to sectional differences not splitting the difference, the Compromise spread the pain without consolidating any gain.

Senators Dirksen and Vandenberg made history because they were not renegades but pioneers, leading their reluctant, partisan followers across the Red Sea to the promised land of bipartisanship to benefit America. Presidents Johnson and Truman – with assists from Vice President Hubert Humphrey, among others — understood that bipartisanship is not about luring one or two mavericks across the aisle, but convincing a broad swath of citizens and leaders that change is coming, and better to be on the right side of history.

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By Gil Troy, History News Network, 7-25-09

In one his many riffs this week against Barack Obama’s health care reform initiative, titled “This is a Very Dangerous Time: Socialized Health Care is Not Dead,” on July 21, Rush Limbaugh explained himself, saying: “So this is an attempt by me to keep people inspired and motivated rather than on the sidelines and analyzing it, the brave moderates! The brave moderates? (laughing) By definition, moderates can’t be brave! They don’t have opinions. (interruption) Dawn doesn’t like me saying things like that. But, I mean, brave moderates? Great Moderates in American History? Show me the book!”

Rush Limbaugh is triply wrong here. American history is filled with great moderates. The story of moderates in American history and in the American presidency makes for a great book subject. And Limbaugh’s celebration of extremism is one of the many reasons why Republicans are failing to get any traction in opposing the Obama Administration.

In my book, “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make Great Presidents,” I show that America’s greatest presidents succeeded by aiming for that presidential sweet spot, either finding the center or reconstituting it. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt were not wimps. They had opinions – contrary to Limbaugh’s caricature. But again and again they demonstrated that important insight that an effective and constructive leader in a democracy has to build as broad a coalition as possible, rather than simply playing to the margins, or being satisfied with “50 percent plus one” of the vote. George Washington, pulled in opposite directions by his squabbling subordinates, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, repeatedly urged them — and their fellow citizens – to be reasonable, to remember America’s “Common Cause.” During the traumatic battle over slavery, Abraham Lincoln endured harsh attacks from abolitionists because he understood that America’s survival hinged on working toward emancipation gradually, and keeping the Civil War a fight for union not for black freedom. Theodore Roosevelt – who was spasmodic, flamboyant, and not at all a moderate by temperament – built his presidential reputation by mediating during a great mining strike and finding a settlement to the Russo-Japanese War. And Franklin D. Roosevelt worked hard to build consensus during the New Deal – and even more painstakingly inched Americans toward involvement in World War II.

Even Rush Limbaugh’s great hero, Ronald Reagan, understood he had to lead from the center. Reagan was elected to be president of the United States not president of the Republican Party or the conservative movement. To keep the nation united, Reagan infuriated conservatives by backing away from their “ABC agenda,” focused on fighting abortion, busing, and crime. Instead, Reagan emphasized economic issues over social and cultural issues. When conservatives yelled “Let Reagan be Reagan,” they erred. When he was singing his broad patriotic song, when he was compromising, when he was building consensus as his role model Franklin D. Roosevelt had done, Ronald Reagan was being Reagan.

Barack Obama also needs to remember the importance of leading from the center – and his promises to transcend the polarizing politics of his baby boomer elders. But shrill extremists like Limbaugh have made it easy for Obama to veer left and still appear reasonable. Having Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney function as the public face of the Republican Party is a recipe for Republican disaster – and national trouble. Democracies need effective oppositions as much as they need smart, reasonable, temperate, center-seeking leaders who appreciate the importance not just of winning but of maintaining the consent of as many people as they govern as they can.

So, yes, Rush, moderates make great presidents, great Americans, and great book subjects. I leave it to others to determine whether they also make for great books, although I appreciate Geoffrey Kabaservice’s suggestion on the New Majority Blog that my book may be the right text to prove Rush wrong.

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