David Gergen On S.C. Politics And The Heath Care Overhaul

Host Scott Simon speaks with political analyst David Gergen about the particulars of South Carolina politics and President Obama's health care overhaul plan. Gergen is director of the Center for Public Leadership and a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

We just talked about Congress and Joe Wilson's outburst during President Obama's speech on health care this week. Representative Wilson, by the way, has apologized and the president has accepted his apology. But combative demonstrative politics have become a signature of South Carolina.

South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint drew fire recently for encouraging Republicans to break President Obama by blocking his proposed health care plan. And Governor Mark Sanford, whose public declarations of his love life have recently captured so much attention once brought pigs onto the floor of the legislature to make a point about pork barrel spending.

Joined now by David Gergen, director of the Center for Public Leadership and a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School. Of course, he's senior political analyst for an outfit called CNN. He joins us from Boston. David, thanks for being with us.

Professor DAVID GERGEN (Director, Center for Public Leadership): Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: One is reminded the Civil War began in South Carolina, didn't it?

Prof. GERGEN: Well, it did. And, you know, South Carolina has had a long history of and is remembered for its poverty, but also it's harsh and often racial politics. You'll recall, Scott, in the run up to the Civil War, it was a South Carolina representative, congressman, who stalked over to the Senate with his metal cane and attacked Senator Charles Sumner from Massachusetts, an abolitionist, and he beat him nearly to death.

It was a terrible thing. And people, sort of, ever since then have accused South Carolina of sort of harsh politics. But I must say, as a neighbor from North Carolina, I do want to rise to the defense…

SIMON: Yeah.

Prof. GERGEN: …of South Carolina on some issues. This state has come a long way. South Carolina has come a long way in this modernization. It has brought in a lot of, you know, German and French companies up into the Greenville, Spartanburg area, Myrtle beach has improved. The Charleston has certainly grown the level of…

SIMON: Charleston is one of the best places in the country.

Prof. GERGEN: Yeah, absolutely. And it's brought with it a different breed of political leaders that, you know, for every combative politician you have there there's also a Dick Riley, who is a wonderful governor and has served in Bill Clinton's Cabinet. Fred (Unintelligible) and now Lindsey Graham is a pretty sweet fellow, you know, by comparison.

So, there is a different tradition growing up in South Carolina. And I think one can hail that and say, well, there's some of the past may live on but there's a lot of other things - good things happening there.

SIMON: David, based on your experience, I believe, you've served every president since Lincoln, haven't you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. GERGEN: Grover Cleveland.

SIMON: Oh, okay. All right. Well, what do you figure of President Obama's staff is doing this weekend and will do over the next few weeks to try and put votes in line?

Prof. GERGEN: Well, I think that they probably had a - they were breathing a sigh of relief after Wednesday night. They had a spirited speech to rally the Democrats. But I - they're smart enough to know they've got tough fights ahead. I agree with Dan Schorr that they're likely to get a bill now.

But, you know, we haven't seen whether the political landscape across the country has changed very much since the speech. It helped inside the hall with the Democrats. But we haven't had any real polls, we don't know that. I think the country is still very polarized. We've got this barroom brawl over Joe Wilson. And they've got some tough decisions ahead.

You know, they don't have agreement on exactly - yeah, probably no public option. But there could be a trigger in there that the opposition says amounts to a public option, because it's unlikely to trigger within a few years. So I think they know that they've got to take this argument to the country. That's why he's going to Minneapolis today. He's got to continue that.

And, you know, he wasn't having much success with these speeches before his big speech to the Congress. But he's given over 30 public speeches on health care and yet he's found, up until Wednesday night, that the country was increasingly soured or souring over it.

So he's got to play the outside game aggressively and maybe he can use that springboard Wednesday night to do that. But he's also got to do a lot of work inside. I think here, Scott, here's the thing...

SIMON: Yeah?

Professor GERGEN: I think that he is likely to get a bill, as Dan Schorr says. I think the chances are probably somewhere around 70 percent he'll get a watered-down bill. But if he comes down to the final strokes and a bill is shaping up and public opinion is negative against the bill, so that you've got, say, 54-46 in the country saying we don't like this bill, it's going to be hard for a lot of folks to vote for it in the end. I still think he needs to not just win the inside game, he's got to win the outside game, too.

SIMON: Does he - and alas, we've only got about 30 seconds left - does he make too many appearances? Does he reduce the dramatic affect of the president of the United States addressing the country?

Professor GERGEN: In my judgment, he is making too many appearances, especially in primetime. It's notable that his speech on Wednesday night - when his first joint session early in the year, he had over 50 million viewers. In this speech Wednesday night, it was just a little over 30 million viewers.

SIMON: David, thanks so much. It was a pleasure to talk to you.

Professor GERGEN: Thank you, Scott. It's good to talk to you.

SIMON: David Gergen, director of the Center for Public Leadership and a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, senior political analyst for CNN.

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