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Obama vs. Clinton: Public vs. Private Talks

02.07.2008 | POLITICS

What is the evolution of unresolved negotiations? Have we benefited from failed diplomacy and conflict management over the years? Does mankind actually learn from its collective mistakes? If so, why do so many disagreements fail or stall for extensive periods of time, like the Writers strike in the US or last for decades like the Israeli vs. Palestine dispute?

Coming to terms with historical antecedents on both sides of a conflict, offer the promise of a collective narrative, or a thread of commonality between opposing viewpoints. However, throughout history, we have seen national leaders, special interests, lobbyists and politicians restructure and obfuscate collective memory. Often this is accomplished by the omission of certain facts or the reshuffling of the deck in ways to best suit a small body of people.

In recent history, executives from big oil companies met with Vice President Cheney's energy task force in 2001 to develop a national energy policy, parts of which became law and parts of which are still debated to this day. The task force's activities attracted complaints from environmentalists, who said they were shut out of the task force discussions while corporate interests were present. The meetings were held in secret and the White House refused to release a list of participants.

So what is missing the negotiation equation? Where does the public come into play in decisions that affects their well-being? If the verdict for many relies on the negotiations of a few, can the end result aid society fairly? Perhaps the current Democratic campaign can shed some light on the need to redesign the system.

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama during the recent debates at the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles said that health reform efforts led by Democratic presidential candidate Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 1990s failed because she conducted negotiations in private and that he would televise negotiations of his health care proposal.

He stated, "I admire the fact that President Clinton and Senator Clinton tried to reform health care (in the 1990s). But I believe they did it in the wrong way." He added, "their theory was you go behind closed doors, you come up with your theory with the help of your technical experts."

The inference here was that, she did not invite members of Congress or receive any kind of feedback from the American people regarding any part of the negotiations and discussion. And while they were behind closed doors, the health care industry, pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies were given ample time to reshape public opinion.

The effort was controversial from the start. Members of Congress complained they were excluded from the process, while Clinton's insistence that the task force meet in secret was successfully challenged in court. The outcome surfaced a plan that was declared dead "in the water in late 1994, just weeks before midterm elections that would hand Republicans control of both the House and Senate.

Obama’s plan is to create a public forum of transparency where invitations would be extended to doctors, nurses and patient advocates. The insurance companies would also get a seat at the table; they just would not get to buy every chair."

He also added, "I would put my plan forward ... and these negotiations would be (presented) on C-SPAN ... so the public would be part of the conversation and would see the choices being made". (Source: Kaiser Family Foundation)

An under-the-radar effort is taking place on Capitol Hill that seeks to advance a new political idea called "Public Talks." This group, from the Institute for Public Dialogue in Sausalito, CA, held a series of successful meetings at Senate offices in November, 2007.

As a follow-up, they are now presenting "A Proposal to Establish the Operating Principles for Public Talks" and are seeking, among other things, to get a meeting with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Public Talks is a globally oriented communication process that is designed to come into play after all other negotiations have collapsed. The scale of this process is extremely large, and that is an argument against it. But the fundamental premise is very simple in that it allows adversaries to challenge each other in a very public way with rules and terms that ensures an equal platform for both sides.

The closest precedent for Public Talks can be found in the fruitful communication process of the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers of 1787 and 1788 where James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay were responsible for establishing the Constitution of the United States.

The central motivation for Public Talks is its potential ability to influence American and world opinion. If one accepts that national leaders are motivated by rallying world opinion to their views, the logic behind this proposal is strong. These principles can be applied to the debate of health care and which leader could outperform in tackling an issue that has taken decades to resolve. If Barack Obama is willing to embrace the premise of Public Talks, are we one step closer to obtaining the first comprehensive health care program for the people of the United States?

According to John Connolly, Executive Director of the Institute for Public Dialogue, "Amidst the 'battle of ideas' taking shape today, US support for Public Talks will show the world community that Americans are interested in not just the symptoms of international conflicts, but also in the underlying causes."

Public versus Private talks should be a consideration in determining the next leader of the free world. And its ramifications are far more reaching than just one central issue, as we, as a country continue to vacillate on our involvement in the Middle East.

About the Author
Ron Callari is a freelance journalist and editorial cartoonist whose work has appeared in Alternet, Counterpunch, Sacramento News & Review, Albion Monitor and the World and I. He is author of "Uncle Dubya's Jihad Jamboree," published in 2005, and the creator of kidd millennium's editorial cartoons,
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