Congress’s Two-Party “Hot Potato” Game


When you were growing up, did you ever play a version of the game “Hot Potato, Hot Potato?” It’s a simple game: players gather in a circle and toss a small object such as a beanbag or an actual potato to each other while music plays. The player who is holding the “hot potato” when the music stops is out. Play continues until only one player is left. The game can also be played without music, where a designated leader shouts out “hot!” and the child holding the object is eliminated.

Democrats’ Pelosi and Republicans’ Boehner

Maybe you’re too young to have played “Hot Potato,” but In D.C. politicians on both sides of the aisle are very adept at this traditional game. But they’re not worried about a potato; they’re worried about not being elected if they’re seen as the last man or woman holding the potato.

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Let’s take Obamacare as a prime example. Surely there’s not a person in the country who doesn’t believe the United States needs to reform and improve its health care system. Surely adequate health care should be available for all, not just the wealthy. But when a Democratic administration passed the Affordable Care Act, it immediately became a hot potato.

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When the website failures became apparent, the administration initially tried to pin the problem on computer glitches. The potato was passed to the contractors who had obviously botched the job.

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When it became obvious that the problems were more substantive, the administration blamed Republican governors who hadn’t expanded Medicaid, and then blamed all Republicans for trying to stonewall the Act itself.

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When the President’s promise that folks could keep their former plan, and keep their doctor, turned out to be not quite accurate, the Republicans were happy to toss the potato back.

What to do?? Convince insurance companies to allow people to keep their former plan at least for the next year, delay implementation by small business for another year, and extend the sign-up requirement. Throw that potato down the field until after the 2014 elections. Maybe an easy solution for politicians who want to be re-elected, but surely not a good means of accomplishing the basic goal: improving health care for all.

Because of all the early glitches, Obamacare is an easy target. But let’s not forget the Tea Party. This hopefully narrow wing of the Republican Party held the country hostage first in the budget fiasco and then again for the debt ceiling. When their strategy failed in a big way, what did they do but pass the potato down a few months. Does anyone really think things will be different in the new year?? I keep hearing the Tea Party doesn’t really represent Republicans-well, what’s up?? Seems to me they’ve pretty much co-opted the Grand Old Party.

Other hot potato issues? You can count on one every month or so; they’re in the news only until someone figures out how to toss them into the future.

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How about the sanctions on Iran for their purported development of nuclear weapons? How about immigration reform? How about national security/terrorism? An unbridled NSA? Tax reform? Budgets and debt ceilings? Neither Republicans nor Democrats want to hold onto any of these potatoes for very long. The solutions aren’t easy. They require serious intellectual thought by serious people and could endanger re-election. How much easier to shove these issues off into the future?

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President John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Last month we remembered the 50th anniversary of the death of President John F. Kennedy. When I was at the Justice Department, President Clinton asked me to find out who really shot JFK-it was a tongue-in-cheek request, but still… if you were President wouldn’t you really like to know for sure? Almost every November since then, I get e-mails and calls asking for the truth. I can’t tell you what I told Clinton, but I can tell you President Kennedy must not have played hot potato as a child – touch football, yes– hot potato, no. When he had to deal with the “botched” Bay of Pigs invasion early in his administration, he didn’t pass the hot potato to his advisors, his Intel, or even the CIA. He didn’t “fumble.” Instead he took responsibility for its failure – no excuses, no shading the facts. He appointed a commission and gave it full authority to investigate and report its findings to the country. Then he shook up his own staff so it would be better prepared for the next crisis – the Cuban Missile Crisis. He chose to learn from failure, not to pass the buck. The result? A collaborative and deliberative process that JFK constructed during “thirteen days” that averted nuclear war.

It’s time we told Republicans and Democrats alike to put away childish games. To quote one of my favorite movies, “The American President”: “We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them.”

We don’t need grandstanding (think Ted Cruz), we don’t need partisanship, and we don’t need hot potato games. We don’t need lightweights who care more about being re-elected than about improving the quality of life for all Americans. We need statesmen who are prepared for the inevitable, real International crises that will occur. (We were almost there in Syria…saved, ironically, by the Russians.) We need men and women of judgment, wisdom, and independence from the money that daily corrupts the Halls of Congress.

Who do you want to help Americans tackle the issues that face us at home? Health care, our growing elderly population, immigration reform, the homeless, poverty, the national debt, failing infrastructure, the lack of meaningful jobs? Sometimes the list seems endless. We owe it to our children to try to deal with these issues in a focused, intelligent, bipartisan manner. We shouldn’t toss these potatoes into their future.