Washington Sketch: A Health-Care Effort in Search of a Leader

By Dana Milbank
Friday, September 4, 2009

This is what a leadership vacuum looks like:

House Democratic chiefs, after a calamitous August recess, dispatched Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) to the Capitol on Thursday to try to pick up the pieces of the shattered health-care bill.

"We've heard the stories -- death panels, euthanasia," the vice chairman of the House Democratic caucus told a roomful of reporters and cameras summoned by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office.

"We've heard any number of things," Becerra went on. "Seniors will pay for the health care of younger Americans. The myths abound."

To remedy this, he distributed a pamphlet from Pelosi's office devoted to "Clearing Up Misinformation" that Americans heard at town hall meetings last month: "A government panel or bureaucrat will tell me when to die. . . . Health care reform will lead to rationed care. . . . Health care reform is a government takeover." After each one was printed: "FALSE!"

"This is not socialized medicine," Becerra pleaded, before asking consent to deliver a quick message in Spanish: "Hay muchas mentiras!" -- there are many lies.

It was a painfully defensive performance, and if news conferences were subject to death panels, Becerra may well have been euthanized. By the end, the Democratic leader had tossed out his script and was pleading with President Obama to show some leadership when he comes before a joint session of Congress on Wednesday. "That's what a president is for: A president is supposed to be the leader and give us that direction," the vice chairman said. "I think the president now, seeing everything that's gone on . . . is going to give us a far better road map about where America should go."

It's a plea Obama is hearing in more and more places on more and more topics. Proponents of climate-change legislation fear that its prospects are fading in the Senate. As the public turns against the war in Afghanistan, even Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele on Tuesday found himself urging Obama to "stand strong and speak out."

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told Helene Cooper of the New York Times that, on Afghanistan, "the president needs to be more aggressive about taking ownership of this strategy." And Time's Joe Klein, generally sympathetic to Obama, accused him of a "deferral of responsibility" on such matters as health care and investigating torture at the CIA. "He has to lead, clearly and decisively, starting right now," Klein advised.

So eager was Obama to avoid the mistakes of 1993, when the Clinton administration tried to present Congress with a fully formed health-care proposal, that he left Congress to its own devices on the issue. That led to a disastrous summer: Democrats on the defensive, the left wing snarling, and splits within the White House. It's almost enough to make one nostalgic for George W. Bush's theory of congressional relations: my way or the highway.

Now Obama, after months of avoiding Bill Clinton's playbook, finds himself preparing to give a health-care speech to Congress, just as Clinton did in September 1993. When Fox News's Chad Pergram helpfully pointed out this irony to Becerra on Thursday, the congressman said it would turn out better this time because "we had a chance over these last eight months to try to shape a good bill."

It was strange to argue that lawmakers would be more receptive to Obama's proposal because they already failed to pass one of their own. But the entire session required some suspension of disbelief.

Becerra, entering the room through a back door that led from a kitchen storage area, found reporters in their recess attire of open collars and jeans. The congressman, promising to provide "the truth as opposed to the myths about health-care reform," was joined by a quartet of like-minded activists who took turns at myth-dispelling.

"When you explain things that are in the bill," said Richard Fiesta of the AFL-CIO-backed Alliance for Retired Americans, "we find that people are much more willing to not believe what may be on television."

"The bill does not cut benefits," promised Patricia Nemore of the Center for Medicare Advocacy, a group that often sues the government to expand Medicare access.

But the questioners had other topics for discussion, such as how Democrats "lost control of the debate" during August. "I wouldn't say there was any loss of control," Becerra answered gamely. "What I'd say happened was Americans started speaking. . . . Some spoke to drown out, some spoke to distort, some spoke to delay."

CNN's Ted Barrett asked how Democrats could get enough votes to pass a bill. Becerra likened the situation to skydiving: "As I keep saying to my colleagues, you're packing my parachute, I'm packing yours. America needs to know that when we're packing their parachute, we're doing it the right way. We had all of August to tell people how we're going to try to pack the parachute. Now its time to start to get ready and take the jump."

It was an unfortunate metaphor for a piece of legislation that is losing altitude. But the Democratic leader held out hope for a safe landing -- assuming Obama finally decides to take the controls next week. "Every one of us has our goals, every one of us has our bottom lines, but at the end of the day, what the president would like us to do becomes the most influential comment," Becerra said. "We have to try to get something done, and the president is the most powerful voice in trying to get us somewhere."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company