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Advice for Obama From a Reaganite

5 years ago
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As President Barack Obama ends his summer vacation and prepares for a return to the tussles of Washington, can he get advice from Ronald Reagan on how to pass his semi-stalled health reform package? Not quite -- but close.

I recently wrote a column noting that the current president might learn a thing or two from Reagan, who came to Washington with an ambitious economic agenda of tax cuts for the well-to-do and severe cuts in social spending that he managed to pass over the objections of the leaders of the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives by whipping up grass-roots pressure. In that article I quoted Kenneth Khachigian, a former Reagan speechwriter, who had told me that the key takeaway from the Reagan experience was that "it was clear you couldn't get this fairly revolutionary plan in place in the midst of a difficult economy unless there was some kind of clamor back home."

After reading that column, Khachigian, who's still active in GOP politics, sent me a note:

As a further twist on the Reagan approach, in the midst of trying to sell his economic plan in the summer of 1981, I offer this anecdote.

RR's plan was headed for a Congressional vote. Unlike the myths about [then-House Speaker] Tip O'Neill and Reagan [being friends], there was huge resistance by, and animosity from O'Neill and the House leadership (with Chris Mathews as O'Neill's press guy pissing all over Reagan).

RR was preparing to go on national television on July 27th [to sell his economic package] and apparently felt the speech needed a "little extra." I was no longer working at the White House full time, but continued to help on special assignments as a volunteer. A couple of days before the speech I got a call asking for help on the speech.

At the time I was on vacation with my family in Sun Valley, Idaho, and the White House operator tracked me down. We found a location (I can't remember where) to have the White House fax the speech text over to me -- which they did.

That afternoon, I sat on the grass alongside the fairway of a golf course which our rented condo overlooked -- and drafted, in long hand, the remarks which follow below. . . . Reagan must have like them, because he pretty much used these verbatim.

I'm not sure Obama has taken this particular rhetorical approach.

Reagan did employ Khachigian's words as the closer for that speech, which he delivered from the Oval Office and which was broadcast live in prime time. Here's what the Gipper said:

During recent months many of you have asked what can you do to help make America strong again. I urge you again to contact your Senators and Congressmen. Tell them of your support for this bipartisan proposal. Tell them you believe this is an unequaled opportunity to help return America to prosperity and make government again the servant of the people. In a few days the Congress will stand at the fork of two roads. One road is all too familiar to us. It leads ultimately to higher taxes. It merely brings us full circle back to the source of our economic problems, where the government decides that it knows better than you what should be done with your earnings and, in fact, how you should conduct your life. The other road promises to renew the American spirit. It's a road of hope and opportunity. It places the direction of your life back in your hands where it belongs. I've not taken your time this evening merely to ask you to trust me. Instead, I ask you to trust yourselves. That's what America is all about. Our struggle for nationhood, our unrelenting fight for freedom, our very existence -- these have all rested on the assurance that you must be free to shape your life as you are best able to, that no one can stop you from reaching higher or take from you the creativity that has made America the envy of mankind. One road is timid and fearful; the other bold and hopeful. In these six months, we've done so much and have come so far. It's been the power of millions of people like you who have determined that we will make America great again. You have made the difference up to now. You will make the difference again. Let us not stop now. Thank you. God bless you, and good night.

Soon afterward, Reagan won his tax cuts and slashes in government spending. I don't believe that Reagan had the policy right, but his political success was undeniable. So what can Obama do in a similar fashion to inspire millions to apply pressure on Congress? I zapped Khachigian an e-mail asking what he would recommend. He immediately replied but said I could quote him only if I stated he was a "reluctant" adviser, for he's not rooting for Obama on this front. Having done that, let me share what he wrote:

Hmmmm, Gimbels helps Macy's . . .

I'm not sure if the situations are apposite. Reagan campaigned very specifically on tax cuts, de-regulation, smaller government and a stronger national defense. When it came to tax cuts, the mobilized troops had a personal stake in them. . . . Cutting the rates helped a huge cross section of his supporters -- in their wallets. And, remember, Obama's victory was really premised on three things: change . . . throw the bums out . . . and his narrative. The electoral victory didn't come about because millions of voters were focused on a "public option" for insurance.

Query: do Obama's troops have the same "personal" stake in the health care debate? . . . They may have an ideological stake, but not a personal one. Most probably have good or great health care coverage. So, basically, it's probably too late for the troops to make a difference. . . .

Hence, if you're asking how does he salvage this? The answer is that at the very least -- assuming this is a passion of his -- he should define the choice, the stakes, the consequences . . . what happens if American chooses one road and not the other. The "two forks." He should address his constituencies directly: "You didn't elect me for a dignified stroll through conventional Washington. You mobilized to move a nation. We don't have the option of picking some days to fight for our fundamental beliefs and other days to let someone else to carry our spears. It is at times like this when your mettle is put to test; not when the night is sublime, but when the night is stormy. To put in a way that all of us truly understand: If not now, when?"

An honest, tough, and convicted exposition of his views will at least define the debate. This doesn't have to be a long disquisition on the current system, but the view from 30,000 feet.

In that case, if he loses (and from my own personal political point of view, I hope he does), then he will have at least set the table for the next iteration of the debate. As it was said: Victory is never final and defeat
is never fatal.

This administration has used up an awful lot of chits in 8 months. If it can't win this one now, it should think through how it can resurrect the issue in a more winnable environment.

Now don't ask me to advise him any more.

Obama's aides might respond that their man has done this -- though the Obama squad has moved late to mobilize his supporters behind an under-construction health care reform package. But Khachigian's bottom line is this: get passionate and define the battle in a polarized manner. After all, this legislative effort has become -- as was probably inevitable -- polarized, and Obama, who unsuccessfully tried to conduct health care reform as a bipartisan exercise, should exploit the flames, not tame them. I always hesitate to second-guess the political wizards of the Obama team. Yet Khachigian is certainly right in one regard: It's usually better to mount a clear fight than a muddy one, and it's definitely better to lose the former than the latter.

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