Mr. President: You're right; they're wrong, and don't you forget it.
There is some good news for President Barack Obama on health-care reform: No one of consequence is seriously arguing to kill it outright. Despite all the sound and fury of the summer town halls, to be against health-care reform is still not a winning position with the American people.
It is important for the president to keep this bottom-line calculus -- that he is on the right side of this issue both morally and politically -- at the top of his mind when he returns from vacation to a chorus of depressing reviews about how badly August turned out for him and the prospects of health reform.
Health-care reform is an issue that won him the election, and it is one that is worth the good fight, one to which he should not just bring a megaphone but a baseball bat.
One strategic consideration going forward is how much ammunition the other side has in its possession, measured against the White House arsenal. In this, the opponents to reform come up short. What they have, and have used to great effect, is confusion. But we should not misread the confusion of the American people as opposition. The other side, with no alternative plan, no coherent critique of the existing ones, and no argument that we're better off without reforms, has resorted to a strategy of distortion and distraction and demagoguery aimed at undermining Obama's credibility. And, sadly, to great effect: Two-thirds of Americans say they are confused by the plans under consideration by the Congress.
In Oklahoma this week, a Republican United States senator told a supportive crowd that the president was dismantling America. "I never dreamed I would see an administration try to disavow all the things that have made this country different from all others," Sen. James Inhofe said. Even if you had any idea what he meant by that, you'd know that he was not even remotely addressing the specifics of the health-care debate. While the right's tactics can be infuriatingly effective at shifting the debate, they point to the huge disadvantage at which the Republicans find themselves; they have been able to confuse the issue, but their chances of killing reform remain slim.
Indeed, a more dangerous threat comes from the president's own party, split between those who are demanding a controversial public option and those worried that a far-reaching bill will hurt them at the polls. This is where the baseball bat will come in.
But first Obama will try his megaphone trick. On Wednesday, he will pull out his explainer-in-chief cape for a speech before a joint session of Congress. It is a speech the White House hopes will cut through the fog, clear up the confusion, and close the deal. A health-care analogue to his Philadelphia race speech, when he used the trouble caused by comments made by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright to talk about how race is really lived in America.
The White House's lack of full engagement on health care may have as much to do with the confusion as the Republican misinformation campaign.
But after all the explanations, clarifications, and the corrections of fact and context, it will be up to Democrats to pass a bill. Obama should not allow either political cowardice or ideological intransigence to kill reform.
To the wobbly legged he needs to explain that this is: 1) not so politically damaging as is being made out, and 2) even if it were, this is the kind of issue that is worth losing an election for. To those demanding a public option, or nothing, he ought to explain that the public option is worth fighting for and that he intends to fight for it all the way to the end. But the fight should be one to win, not to lose. If the public option means no bill at this juncture, then it will have to wait. If we've learned anything from all the recent Ted Kennedy tributes, it is that there is no dishonor in incremental victories.
The real disgrace would be to lose a political fight when you're right and the other side is so poorly armed. August is over.