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26
As if I didn’t get enough JFK last week, I’m reading a new book about how Kennedy, in his last months, was growing into and getting better at the roles of President, politician and persuader-in-chief.
 
If only President Obama could summon some of that mojo now on Obamacare.
 
The book (“JFK’s Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President,” by Thurston Clark) shows how Kennedy used the presidential pulpit in late 1963 to rally public support on three big issues: civil rights, a tax cut and a nuclear test ban treaty.
 
Kennedy was pushing on all three fronts, all while grieving the death of his infant son, coping with his wife’s grief, dealing with riots and violence in the South, sorting through conflicting advice on Vietnam and plotting a reelection campaign.
 
But he was able, sometimes off the cuff, to come up with lines like this one from his address to the nation on civil rights: "We are confronted primarily with a moral issue....It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.”
 
In the history of American politics, that stands as one of the most powerful statements a President ever made.
 
Clark describes a political trip out West in September, much like the trip Kennedy was to make to Texas two months later. His staff had laid out a schedule and a set of speeches that focused on conservation, national parks and natural resources.
 
The urbane Kennedy was about as much an outdoorsman as President Obama. And it showed. His speeches were flat, the crowds were flat, and the trip looked like a flop. Then, at one stop, Kennedy ad-libbed a few remarks about the test ban treaty – and the importance of avoiding nuclear war. The crowd came alive. Kennedy took note. He started tossing aside his prepared texts and talking about the treaty at every stop. The crowds grew, and so did their applause. The trip turned into a triumph. Kennedy concluded that peace could be a winning issue against Barry Goldwater in 1964.
 
Kennedy had developed the gift of reading his audiences, feeding off their reactions and turning what he learned into a tool for leadership.
 
Contrast all this with President Obama today. For all his speechmaking skills, the President seems unable or unwilling to make a public case for his one signature issue, the Affordable Care Act.
 
It’s telling when the best argument comes from a Republican Governor, John Kasich of Ohio: “It saves lives.”
 
Where is Obama’s speech? Where is the argument that Obamacare saves lives and saves money? Where are the mystical chords, part reason and part emotion, that Kennedy learned to touch?
 
So far, President Obama’s main contribution to the dialogue has been, “It’s on me.” He talks about websites and tech glitches, not human beings and transcending issues. So Democrats like Senator Kay Hagan are running scared and some fear that 2014 could be another 2010.
 
Presidents can’t make websites work. But they can make moral and political arguments. This President needs to get on it.

 

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22
Farmers are saying they’ve tried and tried but there’s no way on earth they can hire enough workers to pick the apples and cucumbers and sweet potatoes germinating in the fields so Congress had better get in gear and pass immigration reform jack-rabbit-quick to legalize undocumented immigrants (which is the farmers’ polite way of saying illegal immigrants).
 
Now it’s not clear whether there are just flat out no farm workers, period, or if there are just no farm workers as cheap as undocumented immigrants. But, either way, here’s an interesting fact: The big stick – the big argument – farmers laid on Congress to get it moving had nothing to do with wages.
 
The farmers said, pretty bluntly, to the Congressmen, Hispanics now outnumber African-Americans and you Republicans can either pass this bill or lose their votes. Which comes pretty close to saying, You can pass this bill and buy a lot of votes.
 
Which isn’t exactly Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
 
Ronald Reagan once joked, Watching politics behind the curtain is like watching civilization with its pants down.
 
They ought to carve the words in stone over the doorway Congress.
 
 

 

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21
The train wreck hit so unexpectedly and with such force that, after standing his ground through the opening chaos, the President retreated which turned out to be like pouring gas on the fire – the partisan bickering soared. And Obama’s poll numbers tanked. And now listening to the wise men in Washington that was all that mattered: The President’s poll numbers dropping and Republican poll numbers rising.
 
But beyond the ruins of Washington politics the demise of Obamacare may be a sign of a subtler miscalculation: Not too long ago, from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, Utopian (or, yes, Communist) governments filled rooms with geniuses who dutifully gave birth to Five-Year Plans and Ten-Year Plans and Great Leaps Forward which grey-faced apparatchiks, without pity or remorse, promulgated to build a workers' paradise – then they learned a terrible lesson: Government-run economies didn’t work. Geniuses, even with the best of intentions, were frail vessels when faced with the unexpected, the unseen, and the ghost in the machine.
 
President Obama, with all good intentions, started out with a vision of a kind of health care paradise and had his own rooms filled with geniuses who dutifully plan the first step down the yellow brick road – and now he finds himself scrambling to turn back the hands of the clock.
 
So perhaps the lesson to be learned from Obamacare’s rollout isn’t a three-point swing in a generic ballot question in a poll – it’s humility. And a reminder that geniuses are still no match for the ghost in the machine.
 

 

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20
How often does some well-meaning soul say, “Democrats and Republicans should put aside their differences and just do what’s right for the country.”
 
That sounds perfectly reasonable. But it’s perfectly unrealistic. The differences are over what’s right for the country. And the differences are fundamental and unbridgeable.
 
How, for example, would the two parties compromise on Obamacare? How do you put aside these differences: Democrats believe in government, Republicans don’t. Democrats believe everyone should have good health care, Republicans don’t. Democrats believe in public schools, Republicans don’t. Democrats are for people who are trying to make it, Republicans are for people who have it made.
 
Carter has blogged about the war inside the Republican Party between the Tea Partiers, who abhor compromise, and the “Pachyderms,” who sometimes compromise. Carter notes that the Tea Party is no fringe group. It’s a popular and powerful force within one of America’s two major political parties. Right now, it’s a force looking for a voice.
 
There’s a corresponding force within the Democratic Party. For two decades, Democrats have been dominated by Bill Clinton’s belief in a middle way between Republican and Democratic extremes. President Obama said in 2008 he would go to Washington and bridge the gulf between blue America and red America.
 
How’s that working out for you, Mr. President?
 
Some Democrats still believe in middle ground. Congressman David Price says the two parties came together to balance the budget in the late 1990s and can again. Erskine Bowles, who negotiated that balanced budget, is still trying to do it again.
 
But more and more Democrats believe there is no middle ground with the Tea Party. There is only total war. There will be a winner and a loser.
 
Like the Tea Party, that force is looking for a voice.

 

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19
This poll might make Democrats wonder if Obamacare’s problems go way beyond the botched rollout, broken promise and bug-filled website.
 
The Gallup Poll says that, by 56-42, Americans believer it is NOT the federal government’s responsibility “to make sure all Americans have healthcare coverage.”
 
Now, take this with a caveat. Gallup’s polls famously flopped in 2012. In late October, Gallup had Romney leading among likely voters by six points. Its last poll had Romney up 1. You might recall that he, in fact, lost by almost 3 points.
 
But if Gallup’s health-care numbers – and the trend – are near right, Democrats have to ask: Is this health-care thing just something the public doesn’t want to do – period?
 
Before 2009, Gallup says, “a clear majority of Americans consistently had said the government should take responsibility for ensuring that all Americans have healthcare.”  As late as 2006, 69 percent of adults agreed with that proposition, and only 28 percent disagreed.  But support has been dropping since – to 54 percent in 2008, 47 in 2009, 44 last year and 42 today.
 
As you might expect, there has been a huge change among Republicans. In 2000, 42 percent said health care should be the federal government’s responsibility, and 53 said it shouldn’t. Today, only 12 percent say it should and 86 percent say not.
 
Independents have swung hard, too. Today, 55 percent of independents say the government should not be involved with healthcare. That’s up from 27 percent in 2000.
 
Even among Democrats, 30 percent oppose a federal role. It was 11 percent in 2000.
 
Gallup doesn’t offer any insight into why this happened. How much is a reaction to tough economic times? How much is polarization over Obama? Is race – as in the “welfare queen” syndrome – a factor? Is it the Obamacare headlines?
 
Deeper research is needed. One question in one poll can be misleading. But Democrats need to heed the wake-up call.

 

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18
Up in the gilded halls of Congress the Tea Partiers went on a tear last month voting against Debt Ceiling increases and budgets that didn’t cut spending but the whole proposition of fighting it out with Obama seemed altogether too risky to the Pachyderm Republicans so after a fortnight they gave up the ghost and passed Obama’s bills. 
 
Then, suddenly, the pillars of Republican Washington – like Mitch McConnell – found themselves facing primaries where folks like the Senate Conservatives Fund (which was founded by Senator Jim DeMint) were on the other side.
 
That was a serious problem.
 
So the Pachyderms ran up the distress flag and Big Business, loaded with millions of its own, charged to the rescue.
 
We want, the President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said, a “more manageable Republican Party.”
 
Translation: We like Congressmen who vote for corporate subsidies and these Tea Partiers don’t look too ‘manageable.’
 
Then the Grand Vizier of the National Republican Senatorial Committee piped up and added ‘getting a General Election candidate who can win is the only thing we care about.’
 
Translation: Forget virtue. Principle. And spending cuts. We mean to win. And the end justifies the means.
 
Now the Tea Partiers may get buried under an avalanche of big business cash but, judging by their enemies, not being ‘manageable’ may not be a vice.
 

 

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18
Judging from Obamacare, Democrats can’t make government work. Judging from the October shutdown, Republicans don’t want it to work. What’s a democracy to do?
 
Obamacare is essentially an old Republican idea, hatched by the Heritage Foundation as an alternative to single-payer health insurance. It’s essentially Romney care. The idea is to put everybody in a big insurance poll – through the free market – that spreads the risk and the cost.
 
It tries to solve the problem of 40 million Americans who have no health insurance, Medicaid or Medicare. So they don’t get preventative care. They wait until they’re injured or until they’re really sick, and they go to the emergency room. Then they run up hospital bills in the tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Which they can’t pay. Which all gets shifted to the rest of us.
 
The idea behind Obamacare is simple: Get those people into cheaper care earlier. Make them pay something (if they can) instead of sticking us with the bill.
 
But the execution of Obamacare is complicated. Because it relies on insurance companies. And because Chief Justice Roberts ruled that states could opt out of Medicaid expansion. Which most Republican-run states like North Carolina did.
 
So you could blame Obamacare’s problems on insurance companies, the Supreme Court and Republican governors and legislators.
 
Now American has three choices. First, muddle through with Obamacare. Second, go to a single-payer system by putting everybody under Medicaid/Medicare.  Or third, the Republican solution, which is … what?
 
Oh, that’s right. They don’t have one. In his column Sunday, the N&O’s Ned Barnett had this great quote from John Kennedy in his 1960 campaign: “I have been in the Congress for 14 years, and I know all about the record then, but I have yet to hear of one single original piece of new, progressive legislation of benefit to the people, suggested and put into a fact by the Republican Party.”
 
Some things never change in politics.
 

 

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15
The row started, oddly enough, with a single email. Which got answered. And counter answered. Then, boom, there was a full scale war of emails going on (with me watching copies flying back and forth) that lasted two days.  
 
At first I thought my two friends were arguing over who to support in the Republican Primary for U.S. Senate – but then it struck me what they were really arguing over was two different wars – and which war was more important.
 
Friend #1 figured the war that matters is whipping Obama while Friend #2 figured before whipping Obama the Tea Party had to, first, whip the Pachyderm Republicans in Washington who keep making deals with Obama.
 
Now, make no mistake: Friend #1 doesn’t like deals with Obama. And he wants to cut spending too. But not bad enough to shut down the government and risk losing the next election.
 
Friend #2’s view is simpler. To him all that spending is wrong. Period. Just like adultery or bank robbery is wrong. And he’s not about to go along with adultery just to win an election. He’s also a bit like Davy Crockett standing on the wall at the Alamo – he figures he’s dead right and doesn’t mind taking on a whole army to prove it.
 
In a way this whole argument’s the return of a very old fight I saw the first time back in the mid-1970s when we were trying to elect Ronald Reagan.
 
Back then, in all of Washington, we could only find two Republican Senators who’d endorse Reagan for President. Two. That was it. The rest of Republican Washington lined up behind Gerald Ford. So, in a way, the Tea Party – which, with Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, has three Senators – is way ahead of where we were then.
 
Also, back then, everybody from liberal Democrats to mainstream Republicans let fly saying Reagan was too radical and too uncompromising and too unbending and if he ran he’d sink the Republican Party. And, in a way, that was partly right: He did run. And didn’t win. And Gerald Ford did lose to Jimmy Carter in 1976. But, then, it turned out we weren’t in the Alamo at all. Four years later, Reagan ran again and started winning elections faster than General Sherman tore through Georgia.
 
Who knows if history will repeat itself with a Ted Cruz or Rand Paul, but the Tea Party is a legitimate political movement – its ideas are popular within the Republican Party. And it may have to whip the Washington Republicans first.
 
Reagan did.

 

 

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14
 
The poor Tea Partiers have been getting pounded from pillar to post by the Washington political bosses and reporters and I’ll grant there’s a streak of oddness in the Tea Partiers but they also possess virtues like fighting for lost causes and having the courage of their convictions and besides, when you get right down to it, the idea Americans could do with a few trillion dollars less government over the next decade isn’t really all that unusual or radical.
 
But, that said, according to the bosses the Tea Partiers lack the one big virtue that trumps all the lesser virtues like courage and sincerity: Pragmatism.
 
Now that is a very old form of devilment.
 
The bosses don’t say the Tea Partiers are wrong. They don’t even say they disagree with the Tea Partiers. They just say they’re impractical. Which, in the end, means pretty much the same as wrong – because it means the Tea Partiers should stop fighting for spending cuts. Because, otherwise, Republicans risk losing the next election – which is impractical.
 
Now there was a time in America when we admired politicians who stood up for what they believed in and let the chips fall where they may. But, today, that’s no longer practical. When Obama says, I won’t negotiate on spending cuts – practical means saying, Yes, sir. And passing a budget with no spending cuts.
 
And that’s it in a nutshell.
 
When a Washington Republican says he’s practical he’s saying, Boys, talking about spending cuts is fine. Heck, I agree with you. But having a fight with President Obama over cuts? Forget it. I like serving in Congress and I might not get reelected.

 

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13
Is Senator Kay Hagan overreacting on Obamacare, or should Democrats rush to the lifeboats and abandon ship?
 
If you go by the N&O website’s headline – “Hagan calls for probe of healthcare website as political support drops” – you’d panic. After all, she had a conference call with reporters to call for investigations of the botched launch. The same day, Public Policy Polling said her race has tightened because of “early attack ads” and “the unpopular rollout of Obamacare.”
 
The hardest thing to do in politics is to underreact. But sometimes you should heed the wise words of ESPN Game Day’s Lee Corso: “Not so fast, my friend.”
 
First question (which we can’t answer): Are Hagan’s polls showing that Obamacare is really changing votes? Or is she doing this on the excitement plan, caught up in overheated hype and headlines?
 
What is the real evidence that Obamacare is moving votes now? Was it or wasn’t it a factor in Virginia? Even some Republican polls say no.
 
Or is this just the usual fluctuation in the polls? Republicans were down last month when the shutdown dominated the news. Democrats are down this month when Obamacare dominates the news. Next month it may be something else. Next year it will certainly be something else. If not, Hagan has no hope.
 
Here’s what PPP says about Obamacare: “It's always been unpopular in North Carolina and currently 38% of voters say they approve of it to 48% who disapprove, numbers pretty consistent with what we've found over the years.”
 
The approve/disapprove numbers, then, haven’t changed much. And 48-38 isn’t a margin that decides elections.
 
PPP goes on: “But what's really hurting Democrats is its being back in the news- 69% of voters say its rollout has been unsuccessful so far to only 25% who deem it a success.”
 
True that. And Hagan’s call for investigations put the story – and her drop in the polls – at the top of Page One.
 
Then she faces this reaction from Democrats, summed up by Joe Sinsheimer: "I practiced national politics for two decades as a Democratic consultant, and one of the few lessons I really learned, is that politicians who ‘try to have their cake and eat it too’ are rarely successful. When you try to hedge your positions, your enemies rarely believe you, and you just anger your supporters….Perhaps someone should call Sen. Hagan's office and explain this to her. She is not going to get re-elected attacking Obamacare.”
 
What’s the alternative? Remain calm. Step away from the ledge. Repeat after me: “This website mess needs to be fixed. But we’d also better fix our health care mess. If we don’t, it will bankrupt our nation and every family in it. What's the Republicans’ plan?”
 

 

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