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Dear Mr. Chief of Staff

Rahm Emanuel to The New York Times, 11/10/2009: "Let's be honest. The goal isn’t to see whether I can pass this [health care reform] through the executive board of the Brookings Institution. I’m passing it through the United States Congress with people who represent constituents.”

Dear Rahm,

It may surprise you to learn that many of us here at Brookings like politics as much as you do, and some of us even know something about it. But we don’t understand it exactly the way you do.

Yes, politics is the art of the possible. But leadership is the art of expanding the possible. Leadership without politics is futile. But politics without leadership is blind. 

If you define “success” as a bill—any bill—you (and by implication, the man you serve) are telling your former colleagues in Congress that they are free to do whatever suits their short-term political convenience. This all but guarantees that their work product will duck the hard issues. In the case of health care, it means that they won’t embrace real, guaranteed, and substantial long-term cost reductions throughout the entire system, private as well as public, without which universal coverage will quickly become unsustainable.

It’s time for the White House to step in and speak out. That means publicly specifying the essential elements of meaningful health care cost containment. And it means insisting that they are included both in the Senate bill and in the conference report. I think you know what they are. If not, call Peter Orszag.


William A. Galston, Senior Fellow

The infamous den of useless utopian thinking known as the Brookings Institution

UPDATE: Since Rahm also took a dig at the Aspen Institute in that Times article (“I’m sure there are a lot of people sitting in the shade at the Aspen Institute—my brother being one of them—who will tell you what the ideal plan is. Great, fascinating. You have the art of the possible measured against the ideal.”), TNR asked Walter Isaacson, its director, for a comment. Here’s what he had to say: “He's absolutely right. But the dirty little secret about Rahm Emanuel is that he knows and cares about policy substance more than anyone in Washington.”