“Will you walk into my parlour?” said the Spider to the Fly.
Did the tactical gambit of a Blair House health summit work for President Obama? Once the initial (and periodically recurring) bloviating ended, the respective objectives of the Democratic and Republican sides took shape, as expected. The president’s two-tiered strategy was first to repeatedly paint a number of differences between Democrats and Republicans as not all that great, as soon as the latter agreed even more with the former’s final offer. And on some easily oversimplified issues of “insurance reform” on which congressional Republicans remain either uncomfortable or don’t know how to articulate more nuanced market-based positions, Obama scored some cheap points. His frequent negotiation offer was “Just how much regulation do you want to accept?” as in “We all know what we politicians are, now let’s just settle on the price.” Then, cue the usual letters and anecdotes, while the violin section tunes up. Along with another recycling of countless statistical factoids that turn out to be flawed or distorted (but only when you examine them more closely).
The president’s second approach was to depict (sometimes subtly, sometimes not) remaining opposition to his ideas and those of his congressional allies as simply wrongheaded, untrue, unreasonable, and/or partisan—to prime more public support for the forthcoming procedural end around of a budget reconciliation bill attempt next month in the Senate and House.
Although President Obama clearly signaled earlier this week his resolve to press ahead for a reupholstered version of the Senate’s legislative furniture (left parked on the curb last month), he hoped to put a fresh façade of open-mindedness to any new idea that mimicked his old ones. At times, he jabbed back at Republican critiques quite effectively, although he struggled with containing an “I’m the smartest guy in the room” urge to rebut too much and at too great length, while outrunning his knowledge base. He also left no straw man argument unvoiced, again and again. He even concluded by recycling the race to the bottom credit card fable. Key message—We’re not proposing a full government takeover of your healthcare (yet).
On the minority side, the initial hope was to establish that Republican healthcare ideas was not a null set. Mission accomplished. Particularly effective in fleshing out some policy substance were Senator Tom Coburn—HOW we get to similar objectives differently, Senator Mike Enzi—how real bipartisan legislation is developed, Senator John Barrasso—why patients, not third parties, need to be in charge, Rep. Charles Boustany—explaining House Republican proposals, and Rep. Marsha Blackburn—explaining interstate insurance purchasing in commonsense language. Minority Whip John Kyl scored repeatedly in pointing out to the president what the Senate bill actually did to raise individual insurance premiums and consign “grandfathered” coverage to an early death (it always helps to read bill language before you talk about it…). The highlight for this observer and many others was Rep. Paul Ryan’s cool and clear explanation of both the fiscal and personal long-term consequences of the respective versions of health overhaul, plus the limits of the Congressional Budget Office’s GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) scoring.
Although there were a few knockdowns, the final decision will have to be scored on points. On that front, the congressional minority has a majority among current voters. The White House and the current congressional majority can pull out some heartrending stories and narrow policy themes, but it continues to be tone deaf to what most of the country keeps saying: We want real health reform, but this legislative dog won’t hunt. It just barks a lot.
We watch these summits so the rest of you don’t have to gag.