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Larry O'Donnell, Former Chief of Staff for the Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Interviewed July 14, 1996


FL: Can you discuss the Lani Guanier nomination and then how Clinton dropped it?

O'DONNELL:

In the end, the Lani Guanier situation was Bill Clinton doing the right thing professionally. In the beginning of it, it was Bill Clinton doing the wrong thing. But people wanted to watch that, and they wanted to see it be guided by friendship, and they wanted to find drama in, oh what's he going to do because this is a friend of his. I wasn't particularly capable of that particular delusion. So I just knew that he was going to get rid of her.

If you said to me, you know what is my brother Michael going to do when his friend gets in trouble? I know that my brother Michael is going to do anything and everything that that friend requires. Because you're giving me a human context, to illustrate friendship. If you give me a political context, I'll just tell you that you're not going to find what you out there in the world, civilians, think is friendship.

What was he supposed to do? You know? This wasn't about sponsoring her for a country club membership. This was professional politics. She was chosen for political reasons and she was dropped for political reasons. Not friendship, because it can't be made to work in these settings.

FL: So the Lani Guanier story really tells us something about political life...

O'DONNELL:

Expediency takes precedence over almost everything in political life.

If you look at the case, nominating her for a job and then withdrawing her for the same job against her will, as a failure of Bill Clinton as a friend, then you're making the mistake that thinking that friendship exists in politics in the same way that it exists out there in civilian life. It doesn't. Politicians are incapable of maintaining friendships on the same type of grounds as people who live in non-controversial worlds. You could be my best friend, and I as a politician could want to give you a particular job, or try to give it to you, and have a public reaction sprout up against that idea, at that point the only thing for me to do, is get rid of you. Because I'm a politician. My need is to do the correct thing politically.

And so if you watch me and expect me to do something on the basis of what you understand to be friendship, then you will not understand what I am doing. I didn't see it, I didn't see Bill Clinton dropping Lani Guanier as any kind of abandonment or violation of friendship, this was a professional exchange, that didn't work out, and he got out of it. And he did exactly the right thing in getting out of it.

FL: Let's talk about the ways in which you see and can contrast Dole and Clinton...

O'DONNELL:

We've come to an election now where each party has as it's nominee, the most politically expedient nominee they have ever had. There is no Democrat during my lifetime, who has been more politically expedient than Bill Clinton. There is no Republican during my lifetime who has been more politically expedient than Dole. This means that they actually end up in policy terms as you come down to the finish line, on this election, in very very close proximity to each other on all of the real governing issues in front of this country.

Things of the sort of how many hundreds of billions of dollars do you want to spend on Medicare, what about Social Security, basically what we're paying for as a government. The differences between these two is very slight. All you're left with, really, is the difference between the two of them on abortion, which is serious and identifiable, and a couple of distinctions as to exactly what kind of assault weapons people should be allowed to buy, since both of them are in favor of the public being able to buy some kinds of assault weapons. I mean, Clinton is not against all of them. That's really it. They both want to balance the budget in seven years. That position alone is single most dramatic governing proposal that has been made in this half of the century. Balancing the federal budget within seven years.

For them to have no disagreement on that, brings this election into the tightest fit you could possibly ask for. They don't have a really large meaningful governing distinction between the two of them. Because one coming from the left, the other coming from the right, they have both opted for maximum political expediency, poll driven, which puts them in almost identical positions on all of the big issues.

I know generally people think that politicians are all politically expedient in the extreme. But with virtually every other politician that I can think of in the Republican Party or in the Democratic Party, if you give me his or her name, I can tell you the two or three things that they absolutely will not compromise on.

If you give me the name Bob Dole, I can tell you that the only place he won't significantly compromise is abortion. And if you give me the name Bill Clinton, I'll tell you that the only significant place he won't compromise is abortion. They will, on every other thing, abandon any position they have to abandon in order to maximize their vote count. It's a level of political expediency that we have never really seen before.

Bill Clinton, in his first two years as President, wanted to spend dramatically more money on welfare for example. He thought spending more money on welfare recipients was the way to help them get off of welfare. Bill Clinton now, following the Republican Congress, says he believes that the way to get people off of welfare is to spend dramatically less on welfare. To actually abandon the entitlement to welfare that FDR enacted, something that Ronald Reagan did not dream of suggesting. Bill Clinton on welfare is more conservative than Ronald Reagan ever was. You couldn't have imagined that level of political expediency in a Democratic politician.

Bob Dole's been everywhere you can be in the Republican world on various positions. He has what are considered liberal Republican voting records on certain issues, he has conservative Republican voting records on other issues. But what has been behind it all for Dole all the way along is what works, and for him the question of what works as a senator and as a majority leader, has also been colored by what works for my next Presidential campaign. What will be best for me in New Hampshire, what will be best for me in a general election. And so it's really a truly extraordinary moment that you have two people who each having the nomination of the opposing party, have such stunningly similar positions on all of the issues. Dole makes a pretty good joke about it you know, these days by saying you know, this is my position today, but you know, Bill Clinton will have the same position within a few days. And it's a joke, it goes a little bit beyond the reality of it, but it's not completely disconnected to the way things are working.

I think Bill Clinton and Bob Dole---- Once they became politicians, they were guided by the exactly the same thing. Which was, whatever it takes, to be re-elected, or elected to the next step up. Their lives, prior to running for office, were really strikingly different and defined largely in fact by their relationship to the central societal question of the day for their age cohort which was what are you going to do in this war? Bob Dole went. Suffered because of it. Had to fight his way back physically. Bill Clinton evaded the draft, much as many of my best friends did. And did something completely different, unthinkable to Bob Dole.

Bill Clinton's position was more complex. Bill Clinton's position was ultimately was part of what got us to pull out of that war. Dole's position was very simple, very clear, very principled, unconfused, but ultimately, with these two totally different approaches, to what seems like a question of duty and a question of morality, they each approached it completely differently. Once they became politicians, they both started to behave in very very very similar ways. Going for the expedient route wherever they could find it.

FL: Health care. What does the conception of the health care plan and the failure of the health care plan tell us about Bill and Hillary Clinton?

O'DONNELL:

The Clinton health care story, I think, gives an insight into an inner quality about both Bill and Hillary Clinton, that isn't available in any of the other ways that I've seen journalism try to get inside them.

And you find inside both of them in that story, is an amazing delusion. They were both functionally delusional as politicians coming to this issue of what could we do about health care reform in the United States in the mid '90s at a point when the government is essentially bankrupt. They proposed the most gigantic piece of legislation to ever have come to consideration by the United States Congress. It was to be the most expensive undertaking this government had ever considered, at a time when we were bankrupt, at a time when we were running a gigantic budget deficit. And so that was delusion number one-- that the public and politicians were not going to be willing to get into such a colossal expensive venture with no money.

And then secondly, that the public at this point, in a three decade excitement about distrusting government, was now prepared through Clinton to trust the government in virtually all of its interactions with the health care system. Which is the place where we allow people to put their hands inside of our bodies to save our lives. This is the most intimate transaction that occurs anywhere. And the public looked up, saw Bill Clinton's hands on this health care proposal, and just could never trust it. Absolutely never trust it. Never did. And the Clintons could never recognize that the public was unwilling to trust them specifically with this territory, and then also couldn't recognize some very very simple things like vote counts.

The United States Senate is a very simple place. We've limited it to a hundred votes, it's a pretty easy place to count. And you needed 60 on health care, because you always needed 60 to get it past a filibuster. And it was very easy to count the votes there every single day. The Clintons on their best day, never have 30 votes. Never. Not in January, not in February, not in March. And they were losing votes everyday. And what a vote count tells you, is where you're going to have to go with the legislation. Their choice, as they were losing votes every single day, was to make no compromise whatsoever. And so, to no one's surprise who understands how these things work, they ended up, not with half of what they wanted or three quarters of what they wanted or a third of what they wanted. They ended up with absolutely nothing.

{The health care initiative]---- we had never seen anything like it before. I would suggest we're not going to see anything like it again for a very long time. It was breathtaking in its reach. It was extreme in its liberalism, and as an extreme liberal I don't say that as a negative thing. I believe in effect, doing whatever is necessary to provide health care governmentally or otherwise to every American. But let's admit it, it was the most liberal undertaking anyone had ever proposed.

It was also utterly impossible. It's scope was virtually limitless, it was beyond government's capacities, beyond all government's known capacities in this country. It had involved pure experimentation on a gigantic scale. It involved a recklessness, the last thing you expect to find in people who work on legislation. You don't think of legislators or chief executives of states or the country as reckless people, you think of legislation as the most conservative given approach to whatever is at issue. This thing was stunning in that respect. It was the only piece of legislation in the first two years, that was of itself defining of this presidency. Everything else we did was either inherited from the Republicans, or just a variation of things Republicans had done before, deficit reduction.

FL: What was your own perspective, vantage point on the overall legislative process -- and how the Clinton Administration handled it?

O'DONNELL:

I was the Chief-of-Staff of the Senate Finance Committee when the Democrats were in control of that committee during the first two years of the Clinton Presidency. The entire Clinton agenda had to pass through the Finance Committee, the tax bill and deficit reduction bill of 1993 had to go through there, immediately afterwards, NAFTA had to go through, the GAT had to go through there, all the international trade legislation, the health care legislation had to come through the finance committee because we had jurisdiction over medicare and medicaid. Welfare has to go there, Social Security legislation, most of the government, most all of the government's money is, resides in the Finance Committee, so legislative programs almost always have to pass through.

So I had a lot of experience dealing with the President on the tax bill first of all in 1993, then NAFTA, then the GAT, then also health care. On health care, there was a problem that involved this sense of--'You're with us or you're against us.'

The health care crowd in the White House and in the Administration were all kind of in concentric circles around Mrs. Clinton, and it was very well understood in the White House, that anything said even slightly negatively about the health care plan was taken as something as an enemy comment. So I found myself reporting to them that we don't have the votes for the employer mandate, or we don't have the votes for the health care alliance, or we don't have the votes. Which to me is a neutral comment, I'm just telling you the votes don't exist for it. They used to take that as a declaration of enemy action on my part or on the part of other Democrats who were trying to tell them that the votes didn't exist.

Senator Moynihan was the chairman of the Finance Committee and he and I went into the Oval Office one day, and we identified the possibility of three Republican votes that we thought we could get on the legislation. And the President then said, well that makes us awfully close to 60, 60 being the number you need in the Senate to overcome a filibuster.

And I thought--couldn't say it at the time--but he seemed to be adding 3 to 56 which was then the current number of Democrats to get himself up to 59. Which was a completely delusional calculation because we didn't have 56 Democrats supporting us. We were telling him we thought we might have 3 Republicans to add to maybe 30 Democrats to get us up to 33 which is to say this thing is still in the hopeless zone.

Vote counting is a very dispassionate way by which to arrive at the policy positions you're going to need to incorporate in legislation in order to get it passed. Zealotry was more the order of the day in the Clinton White House about health care. This was thought to be a crusade, this was thought to be a noble mission to help the disadvantaged, which it was. But this government in not terribly enthusiastic about noble missions to help the disadvantaged, and hasn't been for a long time.

So the the knowledge that you needed in order to understand what the policy positions were going to have to be, were the kinds of information that we were constantly trying to give the White House and give directly to the President which were the vote counts.

And they had no ability to process that information, no ability to take those vote counts back into the legislation and say, 'Well ok, we're going to have to get rid of this this and this in order to end up with a legislative product.' That is precisely the ability that Bob Dole brought to every moving vehicle of legislation in the United States Senate every single day.

FL: Was there a particular single moment, which focused this difficulty around compromising ....

O'DONNELL:

Yah. Fairly late in the game in June, Senator Moynihan and I went into the Oval Office to meet with the President again and we brought Bob Packwood from the Senate Finance Committee to explain to the President where the Republicans were on all of these issues. And Bob Packwood gave the President a very honest assessment of just how impossible this was going to be for him and just what sorts of compromises he was going to have to make.

And the President really didn't get it all. He didn't even converse. He just made speeches at Packwood. It was the kind of discussion from the President's perspective that could well have been on C-SPAN. And I was sitting there thinking well this is a great waste of time. Bob Packwood is trying to show you the road map to possibility here, or the road map to solution and not only are you not really considering what he's saying, but you're just making a speech at him. And Bob Packwood did what any reasonable person would do after listening to you know, 20 minutes of speeches, he gave up.


continued

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