Please God, no more health reform speeches.

How to fix health policy.
Sept. 8 2009 6:29 PM

No More Speeches!

On health reform, Obama needs to twist arms, not win hearts and minds.

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Liberal blogger Chris Bowers estimated on Aug. 28 that the public option has 44 Senate votes, putting it only six votes shy of the necessary 50 (with Biden as the tie-breaking 51st vote). Sens. Mark Warner, D.-Va., and Ron Wyden, D.-Ore., seem to be inching out of the "maybe" and into the "yes" column, which might mean a deficit of only four votes. Even Sen. Max Baucus, D.-Mont., who excluded a public option from his new "framework" document for his deadlocked finance committee to mull over, might be persuadable.

But these votes aren't going to be won through speechifying. They're going to be won through some combination of flattery, arm-twisting, and promise-giving. One argument I might make if I were Obama: "You're a Democrat, and I'm a Democrat. If the Democrats' health reform fails to pass, then, yeah, I'll look weak. But you'll look weaker. Remember the 1994 midterm elections? Bill Clinton's health reform plan was in deep trouble, causing him serious problems, but it caused even more serious problems for Democrats in Congress. Two years later Clinton won himself a second term, but in 1994 the Democrats lost the House and Senate. Capiche?"

It isn't the public that needs inspiration right now. It's Obama himself. I recommend that he turn to Page 960 of Robert A. Caro's Master of the Senate:

He used his stories, and he used his jokes, he used his promises, used his threats, backing senators up against walls or trapping them in chairs, wrapping an arm around their shoulders and thrusting a finger in their chests, grasping lapels, watching their hands, watching their eyes, listening to what they said, or to what they didn't say: "The greatest salesman one on one who ever lived"—trying to make his biggest sale. Never had he tried harder. In the intensity of his effort, he even instituted a new variation on one of his old devices. Lapels had long been for grabbing, but now he used them—or rather the buttonhole in them—for another purpose. Trying to persuade a senator who was resisting persuasion, Lyndon Johnson would stick his long forefinger through the hole in the senator's lapel to prevent him from moving away. "The other day," [newspaper columnist] George Dixon wrote, "I spied Majority Leader Johnson holding Senator Estes Kefauver in captive conference. Kefauver couldn't have gotten away without leaving his lapel behind."

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Johnson, incidentally, couldn't give a decent speech to save his life, and had he ever recorded an audiobook of The Vantage Point, it's doubtful he'd have won a Grammy. On the other hand, as Senate majority leader he got the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction through Congress, and later, as president, he created Medicare and Medicaid.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.