No Need for Wise Men?

by on April 10th, 2010

You go through the gate. If the gate’s closed, you go over the fence. If the fence is too high, we’ll pole-vault in. If that doesn’t work, we’ll parachute in. But we are going to get healthcare reform passed for the American people.

– Nancy Pelosi

When I was a kid, I was a baseball pitcher. I loved it: Nothing could happen till I threw the ball. I was in control.

One day, my team went into the last inning with a two-run lead. I got the first two hitters out. The next hitter grounded softly to the third baseman, who picked up the ball and threw it past the first baseman for a two-base error. The next batter grounded to the second baseman, who became confused when the runner did not run to third but drifted a few feet off second base. Instead of making the easy toss to first base to end the game, the second baseman lunged after the runner near second. The runner stepped back on second base, safe. The batter crossed first base, safe without a throw: Another error.

The next batter — their weakest hitter — smashed my first pitch over the chain-link fence. Three runs scored and we lost the game.

“How did we blow this game,” I shouted as I walked off the field with my sullen teammates? The third baseman was looking the other way. The second baseman was being comforted by his dad. I shouted it again: “How did we blow this game?” The coach put his arm around my shoulders and said, “You threw a bad pitch and their worst hitter got a home run.”

Me? I didn’t make a bad throw to first. I didn’t pull a bonehead play at second base. I didn’t make those two errors on easy ground balls. Sure, I had thrown the pitch.

The lesson sunk in. I had blown the game.

I could rationalize that the game would have been over if my teammates had not made those two errors. But I threw the pitch that was hit over the fence. I blew the game.

This isn’t Chicago. Or is it?

President Obama blew healthcare reform. When his strategy of aloofness from the Congressional machinations blew up, he got out of sorts and blamed other people. He demonstrated the worst political leadership skills imaginable. He sulked. He growled. He frowned. He pointed his finger at inquiring reporters. His eyes blazed with anger. He was short with his friends and ice-cold to his opponents. As Obama became ever more testy, some of his staff, partly in jest but based on their appraisal of his outsized ego, started referring to Obama as “the smartest man in the room.” Little by little, the smartest man in the room was exposed as an overreaching loser. His ineptitude brought him to the abyss — a failed presidency.

Then a Republican won Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat. Everyone else saw the election of Republican Scott Brown as the end for healthcare reform. Obama chewed on it. He came to see the election of Brown as liberating, not terminating. Somehow, in that moment of defeat, a written-off president realized something that few leaders would understand: His enemy’s great triumph was his opportunity. Presidential Advisor David Axelrod has confirmed that Obama intensified healthcare efforts when he perceived a GOP let-down.

Obama realized that he was released by Brown’s victory from having to play by the Washington rules. He could play by his rules. He could play by Chicago rules. He could crush a few skulls, trick a few dunces, make one-sided deals with a few congressmen who thought that they were getting the best of a weak president. He could use the old Chicago gangster methods of intimidation: The mob developed to a high art the ability to “rub out” someone without leaving enough evidence to arrest anyone — but everybody know who ordered “the hit.”

Obama announced yet another last assault for healthcare reform while jobs, the economy, the environment and everything else waited. So while Obama made speeches and took the high ground, a few editors and influential Democrats around the country learned of possible ethical lapses by their local congressmen. No one noticed at first that the congressmen singled out for tidbit treatment were all Democrats who had not committed to voting for Obamacare. As soon as a congressman committed to support reform, the leaks stopped and the editors and influential Democrats were told, “never mind!” Sometimes, it was implied that Republicans were behind the scandalous rumors. Quickly and unexpectedly, seemingly unnoticed, several wavering House members lined up behind healthcare reform.

Friends doubted Obama

Meantime, all the smart people — especially in Congress and the media — saw Brown’s election as more than the end of healthcare reform. They saw it as the end of Obama’s pretensions, the end of his grab for greatness. He became the stubborn ideologue who refused to move on to other issues. He seemed intent on dragging the whole world through the folly of brutal, intimidation politics that he could not win. The cynics were wrong. Brass knuckles and full-frontal threats in Washington? Yeah.

By the time the House voted, Obama had made it almost noble to play Chicago-style politics to pass healthcare reform. One gimmick called for the House to pass reform without actually voting on the bill itself. While Republicans attacked that strategy, more undecided Democrats realized that the Tea Party was a lesser threat than the White House political operation. Rather than risk damaging publicity back home, Democrats signed on to Obamacare. Many just wanted to get it over so they could move on to the issues that the voters wanted and that Obama was ignoring.

Obama turned his back on voters wanting jobs. He ignored the economy. How do you think the people of Indonesia feel? They were all ready for a celebration. They had spent their money on Obama tee-shirts and United States flags. Continuing an inexplicable record of irritating and alienating America’s allies, the president dissed two important countries. In essence, the president said that healthcare reform in the U.S. was more important than the people of Indonesia, more important than our faithful Australian allies. Essentially, the president implied that Congress could not be trusted to do its job without Obama twisting arms and making ugly and unartful deals.

The final deal with an overmatched Michigan Democrat showed just how skilled the president and Speaker Nancy Pelosi are. You may read about Pelosi’s Baltimore-honed political tactics here. They outwitted the poor pro-life congressman into sacrificing his issue for a meaningless promise that can be withdrawn at any time. Overnight, that congressman went from crusading hero on the way to reelection to ridiculed bum trailing in the polls.

Were the wise advisors intimidated, too?

Come November, voters may display their disgust. But it will be too late to bring down Obama. By sheer force of will, and with the vision to see his opposition take it easy after the big win in Massachusetts, Obama made certain that he will not go down as a failed president. He seemed to have squandered his opportunity. Instead, the Republicans wasted theirs. He gambled with the good will of an anxious nation and the hopes of people around the world. He trusted myopic Congressional leaders who did not have his vision or courage. He scared them into voting against their own best interests. He sacrificed them, like pawns on the chess board. They fell in line. Obama won. Americans love a winner.

There is a belief — perhaps a myth — that in times of crisis, the political parties have a few respected, gray, seasoned leaders who will go to the president and tell him what he needs to hear. They are the last safeguard, available to protect the president from self-inflicted disaster. They went to Richard Nixon. They went to Jimmy Carter. They went to Bill Clinton and they went to George W. Bush. Nixon listened and left. Clinton listened and changed. Carter argued with the wise men. Bush listened but stayed the course.

Barack Obama got no visit. Does he respect no one enough to make a visit helpful? Are there no people of sufficient gravitas to talk turkey with him? Lyn Nofziger, advisor to President Reagan, gathered steely-eyed men and women on more than one occasion and ushered them into the Oval Office. He remarked once that his job was simple: “To let the president know when he needs a shoe shine. Everyone steps into dog s**t once in a while, that’s all.”

This president did not need the wise, seasoned advisors. He saw his opportunity and made the winning decisions. The Republicans seemed to coast after Brown’s victory. They, not Obama, paid the price of hubris.

This is one time when the smartest man in the room was the smartest man in the room.

Can Obama throw this pitch again?

Kenneth E. Feltman