When they join us, you realize just how claustrophobic basic cable can be; when they’re able to open up and talk at length, it’s like uncorking a great bottle of wine, the kind you hide until the time is right. Perhaps the food, drink, and the relaxed nature of those around the table offers a chance for them to share what’s really on their minds, if only television gave them enough time.
They are often rambunctious affairs. Several years ago, it was a Luncheon Society gatherings with Christopher Hitchens that started at a San Francisco restaurant before we all decamped for an open air bar where everybody smoked, drank, or did a little of both. 48 hours before the 2008 California Primary, Fox Contributor Lanny Davis squared off between the Obama and Hillary Clinton supporters, who were crowded together at either side of a long table at Town Hall Restaurant in San Francisco and went after each other with rhetorically sharpened knives. Last year in New York, where Jimmy Breslin held court late into the night, he bemoaned Times Square’s lack of hookers and transients with that familiar raspy voice, the one I heard in my mind’s eye, back when I read his columns in The New York Daily News.
MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell has joined us as a main speaker in the past but also has visited when others spoke in Los Angeles. O’Donnell is a frequent guest on Keith Olbermann, Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow and the rest of the MSNBC stable; he often guest hosts.
Several years ago, when former US Senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart spoke at TLS gathering in Westwood, one of the participants asked Hart if he ever watched The West Wing knowing that Lawrence O’Donnell, who was at the table, served as the Executive Producer and had crafted many of the characters and storylines. Hart replied that almost too painful to watch because it gave him a glimpse of what could have been. A sentence later, the conversation came around to O’Donnell. He talked about the creation of Josiah Bartlet, and mentioned that instead of creating the character to look like Pat Moynihan (his initial instinct), his wife challenged him to fashion it around those he truly admired. As a result, there was a lot of Gary Hart in the Martin Sheen character.
When O’Donnell finished his sentence, people simply stopped talking. Clocks stopped moving. Hart was rendered temporarily speechless, but spoke haltingly, and felt deeply honored. Those of us around the tabled were stunned and when I looked across the table at Ted Johnson, who writes the online Wilshire and Washington column for Variety; he looked back in utter surprise. Years later, we both understood what it truly was; a moment captured in amber.
This time, we aimed for Santa Monica at a restaurant called Chez Mimi, a place that I have always wanted to have a Luncheon Society gathering, but finally an old friend Mary Buffett put her foot down and together we made it happen. Located off the beaten path, Chez Mimi is a wonderful collection of room-sized “hideaway bungalows” that recalled Los Angeles from an earlier time. Owner Micheline Hebert is an Angelino by way of Montreal, who ventured west when she was younger to work an au pair for an opera singer before she picked up the wooden spoon and found her true love creating great French cuisine.
The Death of Healthcare Reform. We jumped into the fray and began to talk about healthcare reform, since Scott Brown was sworn in as the Bay State’s junior senator the very next day. It also marked the end of healthcare reform in this generation. With the Democrats 60 vote filibuster-proof majority in ruins, any chance for any meaningful reform was now lost. It died the moment Martha Coakley conceded the election to Scott Brown and receded back into the weeds of Massachusetts state politics. O’Donnell is no stranger to the light and heat of healthcare battles. As Democratic Chief of Staff of the Senate Committee on Finance during the 1990’s and former aide of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, he sadly recounted that the Clintons had a tine ear for understanding of the United States Senate and their hubris cost them dearly.
The Culture of the Institution. The Senate—and most importantly—the Senate Finance Committee O’Donnell notes, is where the real action takes place. Those liberals who heaped scorn upon Senator Max Baucus, never understood that he was the lynchpin of the debate. What he put into the bill at the outset would determine its route to the President’s desk.
During the 1990’s, the Clintons had created their monster program in secret and when he unveiled it before the nation, The President threatened to veto it if it lacked universality. Clinton not only snubbed the Senate in its creation, but he placed a dare on the table. By the time Senator George Mitchell declared the compromise healthcare dead in 1994, the co sponsors had been whittled down to a measly few and the legislative staffs were administering last rites. O’Donnell claims that the bill could have made it if Clinton had not treated the US Senate like the Arkansas State Senate.
However, President Obama took another tack on the bill. He would lead the fight on healthcare but like Seinfeld’s George Costanza, his Administration “would do the opposite,” and work with the Senate to allow them to create their own bill. They would marry it up with the House version and allow it to wind its way through the legislative process. Harry Reid took a great deal of heat for deals with Ben Nelson and others but they were so close. For awhile it appeared to work. For the first time in American history, two versions of healthcare reform passed both houses of Congress and were prepared to go to conference to work through a unified compromise. In fact, Mitch McConnell agreed on C-Span not to have any amendments added to the bill so Republicans could run against it in the fall.
Throughout this process, Senator Kennedy cheered from the sidelines but his own health deteriorated to the point where he could no longer walk. In August, the brain cancer that had sidelined him from the Senate and House debate finally claimed him. Paul Kirk was chosen over Mike Dukakis as his temporary replacement and the process meandered on. The ball was on the goal line. It was assumed that Martha Coakley would ride into the Senate as a result of the special election and ride to the rescue of healthcare as the 60th permanent note. However it was not to be.
The Presidency and Domestic Policy. Lawrence O’Donnell carefully noted that this episode illustrates the limits of Presidential power on the domestic front. Unlike a parliamentary democracy in the United Kingdom, where the Prime Minster can push through legislation based on mere strength in numbers, an American President has to wade through the muck and traditions of two legislative houses, both who look at each other with mutual suspicion and view the Chief Executive as an interloper with a temp job.
It also underlines why American Presidents revel in foreign policy, because they can roam free without congressional interference.
Healthcare Reform seems so politically star-crossed. Healthcare came heartbreakingly close. O’Donnell noted that Big Programs like “Healthcare Reform” often result in a larger Big Pushbacks from legislative enemies, special interests, and blend of Astroturf and real grassroots resentment. To many, healthcare is too scary. Not everybody pays taxes; Not everybody is drafted into the armed forces; but everybody faces healthcare challenges and fear rules the day.
Lyndon Johnson got Medicare through Congress and to his desk for signature but he also built huge majorities in both houses, understood their cultures, (especially of the Senate), and was never shy about mentioning his martyred predecessor. Better still, Johnson built The Great Society before the creation of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which placed a price tag on Obama’s reforms and gave opponents the arguments to kill it. For Johnson, it was easier. Deals were cut and things got done. Medicare passed with huge majorities. It curtailed elder poverty, offered quality care, and drove life expectancy from the high 60’s into the low 80’s.
While the United States remained as the only industrialized nation not to have universal healthcare for their citizens, successive healthcare plans, O’Donnell noted, have been thinner in coverage and narrower in scope.
Nixon’s the One. In February 1974 as part of his State of the Union, President Nixon offered a comprehensive healthcare package, with employer mandates for universal coverage. It is stunning to think that the best plan for healthcare reform came from a Republican President reviled by much of the Liberal Establishment. However, the fact was that Nixon was bored by domestic politics and as a result, many liberal ideas like The Clean Water Act and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were hatched during the Nixon years.
Had it passed, it would have acted as the natural bookend to Medicare, providing cradle to grave coverage that could have been administratively connected with time and the appropriate political fix. However, by that time, The Nixon Administration was failing to pieces over Watergate and would be gone in a few months. Worse, Ted Kennedy killed it early on, quietly telling many that it would be his crowning achievement when he reached The White House. When Gerald Ford came into the White House, Healthcare Reform quietly receded into the wings.
Carter’s Chance. By 1979 President Carter came to the table with a “Phased-In Healthcare Plan,” a watered down version of the Nixon idea, but far from the all inclusive program that Ted Kennedy had in mind as he prepared to challenge the sitting President in the 1980 primaries. Carter noted on an interview after Kennedy’s death, “that didn’t quite agree on the technique of getting health care guaranteed for everyone, but we both had our hearts in the same direction.” Kennedy objected to Carter’s approach and when Ronald Reagan won the White House in the fall of 1980, Healthcare reform was lost for another decade.
Rise of Clinton. However, healthcare reform rose in one of the most unlikely places. In 1991, as part of a special Senate election in Pennsylvania to replace the late John Heinz, Harris Wofford ran on the need for healthcare reform and beat Dick Thornburgh, the former Governor and then-US attorney general for the seat.
By the time the Clintons rolled out their healthcare reform package, one which was crafted in secret and without Congressional input, they presented the nation a watered down version of the Nixon and Carter plans. Universal coverage was still a hallmark, and there was bipartisan support. This time the Clintons dealt with a new participant, the steep rise in special interest money that flowed through the halls of Congress. Commercials featuring a fictional “Harry and Louise” took aim at a health plan perceived as complex, rendered it unintelligible, and labeled it as the worst type of government bureaucracy.
William Kristol quarterbacked the opposition with a steady flow of memos and attack pieces that offered succor to healthcare providers, industry CEO’s, and a variety of special interests. The full-court press was so fierce that conservative talkers like Rush Limbaugh and others convinced many that the healthcare crisis was a mirage. Voters rose up in the 1994 midterm elections and routed the Democrats, with Newt Gingrich leading the parade, effectively putting the pitchfork into healthcare yet again.
2008, 2009, and failure again. By the time Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama raced across the nation in search of delegates to claim the Democratic nomination, the twin issues of healthcare and the economy ruled the day. By now Hillary Clinton had retreated to the Chafee Alternative, former Senator John Chafee’s Republican version to the Clinton Healthcare bill of 1993.
Both understood that universal care was not realistic and by the time Senator Obama took the oath of office, Harry and Louise were replaced by “death panels” and tea parties. Like George Costanza before him, the Obama Administration “did the opposite” of the Clintons. Deals were crafted to pacify Big Pharma and The White House was open to negotiating everything. However, this time the Healthcare Lobby bared its teeth and, in many cases, chose not to hide behind a raft of surrogates. They proved that you can scare a nation out of its mind and then goad it back to sleep once the storm had passed. Weeks after it appeared that healthcare had died, Anthem Blue Cross raised its individual premiums by 39%.
The Chorus of “Ifs.” However, perhaps more painful, this failure was shrouded by a chorus of “if’s.” If Senator Kennedy had not died; if Massachusetts did what almost every other state did and appointed a successor to Senator Kennedy that would have been free until the 2010 midterm elections; if Martha Coakley had a decent retail game on the ground and if she had won, a bill would have been signed.
However the larger if for me is this: If Ted Kennedy had worked with a wounded Richard Nixon in 1974, might there have been a National Health Program passed that today would be on par with what is found in the rest of the industrialized world? Yes. If he had cut the deal, he would have been able to own healthcare, mold it and reshape over the ensuing years it to be his all-encompassing dream, long after Nixon and many other Presidents had come, gone, and made their own appointment with mortality.
Instead of fighting for a legacy that eluded him in the end, Senator Kennedy could have exited the stage as an American version of Canada’s Tommy Douglas, the Father of the Canadian Health Plan who is continually the most revered man of his nation; this Kennedy, who saw the blessings of grandchildren and old age, would have been the Man of our Century. He would be the man all Americans quietly thanked in countless tender Emergency Room conversations with family, somewhere between life’s dawn and life’s end.
In the end, no legislation is perfect or but if you were to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of healthcare,” to parrot his older brother’s inauguration speech, there was a deal to be cut in 1974, regardless of the odious nature of its author.
Back to the Future, with Medicare. Where does one go from here? Perhaps the one way to resolve the problem is to take the successful tools we have and expand them accordingly. It’s easier to expand a freeway, than to break virgin soil and create new blacktop. Perhaps the time is right to expand Medicare to those under 65. George Shultz, Nixon’s Secretary of Labor and Treasury, and Secretary of State under Reagan, has already proposed to reduce the age of Medicare eligibility to 55 so that seniors can work long into their golden years without employer-based healthcare, thereby increasing their desirability in the workforce.
Why stop there? What if the key to stabilizing Medicare’s financial red ink was to introduce healthy younger families into the mix? What if families had access to the most popular public option to pay the “rack rate” for Medicare, and deduct it from their wages without any need for without any taxpayer support? What if S-Chip, COBRA, and the other bulk of healthcare band-aid fixes could he housed under one roof where costs could be contained with a 2% overhead found at Medicare, verses the 25% overhead found with private insurers? What if there was a way to bypass the insurance industry’s individual plans, which are priced at one step from usury? Perhaps liberals, progressives, and others who support Healthcare reform should move in that direction.
Stand and Fight. Finally, O’Donnell had some parting words for liberals who had recast themselves as progressives or found themselves running away from the term. Conservatives, in good or bad, stayed with their label. They did not recast themselves as American Tories, when conservatism seemed lost in the wilderness during the 1960’s, they stayed with their beliefs through grit and toil and won people to their side. Liberals, perhaps bullied by the O’Reilly’s and Limbaugh’s of our day have run away from their core beliefs.
Brilliant luncheon and we’ll see you later this week in Manhattan for Dick Cavett and Mario Cuomo.