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Obama’s Deal: Inside the Battle for Health Care Reform (DVD Review)

12 Jul, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$24.99 DVD
Not rated.

Rahm Emmanuel did everything but cheerlead for health care reform as the brand new White House Chief of Staff because he’d been a first-hand witness to history when the Clinton Administration had gotten all clogged up in special-interest machinery when it took on the issue. But health care was the domestic issue of the day in the early days of the Obama Administration, and the new president said he wanted to prove that big problems could still be solved in this country.

April’s “Frontline” special from its top creative gun (Michael Kirk) is about the grimy hands that resulted from presidentially mandated arm-twisting on the long road to getting a bill passed. Despite a roadblock a day (including even the death of a key symbolic player), the result was enacted — though how direly its passage will affect the coming election (and 2012’s as well) is the unresolved cliffhanger on which this typically tight Kirk reportage concludes.

Because the Clinton era’s cheap-looking but potently anti-reform “Harry and Louise” ads had practically effected a health care crib death the first time around, Obama stocked his staff with veteran insiders who knew the Hill thoroughly and could hand-hold Congress every step of he way. But Democratic Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana, who had enjoyed major political contributions from the health industry, was not the handholding type. He would be a thorn in the president’s side — as were a) the fact that former South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle had to withdraw his nomination as Obama’s Health and Human Services Secretary over some financial stickiness involving, among other things, a limousine; b) the death of titanic reform ally Ted Kennedy; and c) Republican Scott Brown’s win in the special election for Senator Kennedy’s eternally held Massachusetts seat when voting margins for passage (or not) were razor-thin and along party lines.

Expect the usual array of Washington characters and confrontations, though here, of course, the stakes were upped. There’s Billy Tauzin, formerly a Congressional Democratic who became a Republican — and then a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry. There’s Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, whose state received a $100 million quid pro quo payment (though, of course, it was denied) for his vote. There’s the sight of Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley — originally thought of as a possible reform ally — getting assailed by a mob of angry constituents he later said were carrying sheaves of anti-reform rhetoric copied off the Internet (a first for him). It’s easy to go back and forth when you watch this rudely agitated citizenry. Sometimes you think you’ve never seen so many people who appear to have graduated 347th in a high-school class of 355 assembled in one gathering. But thinking about the some of the deal-making portrayed here, your own mouth starts to foam.

Yet the final bill didn’t pass on wishes, and you get a great sense here of how arduous the process is and how much unsavory things one has to do even to win a squeaker, which Kirk gives us in just under an hour. When Robert Caro chronicled how Lyndon Johnson arm-twisted the ’50s civil rights act in the best book about American politics I’ve ever read, Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson Vol. 3, it took over a thousand pages.

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