Friday, February 26, 2010

The Blair House Project

“I hope that this isn’t political theater,” President Obama said near the beginning of an event as eagerly awaited in Washington as a new James Levine production of “La Traviata” would be in Rome. For more than six hours on Thursday at the Blair House, across the street from the White House, the president met with Republican and Democratic senators and congressmen, for an unprecedented health-care summit meeting, televised for your convenience.

Despite Obama’s appeal, the Republicans (some initially reluctant to show up at all) appeared with talking points, soundbites and props, the stuff of theater at the ready. But by the end of the day, two things were obvious:

(1) The glum faces of Oklahoma Rep. Tom Coburn and Arizona Sen. John McCain strongly indicated that the Republicans had spent their last ammunition and are coming around to the high probability that the process of reconciliation — a straight Democratic party-line majority vote in the Senate — is the next formidable card to be played by the White House to advance the health-care agenda.

(2) The closing statements by President Obama, effectively holding the promise (or the threat) of reconciliation as a distinct possibility may be the best chance for the Obama White House to salvage a beleaguered health-care bill, and maybe the best chance to rescue an increasingly damaged reputation with the Democratic base.

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The Obama sang-froid was much in evidence, the president’s trademark cool displayed for much of the session. He hinted at where he was going at different times, telegraphing punches he knew the Republicans couldn’t dodge. And President Obama exercised his talent for rhetorical logjam removal: “I think the American people aren’t always that interested in the procedures inside the Senate on how we move this forward,” he said at one point.



The Republican pushback was predictable and hurt by generalities and imprecision. McCain, Obama’s old antagonist on the campaign trail, went at the president in some hazy, ad hominem attack for Obama’s alleged retreat on a campaign promise to put health care negotiations on C-Span. "We're not campaigning anymore," Obama said. "The election is over."

McCain grinned that grin laced with malice, and said that he was “reminded of that every day.” Who do you blame for that, pal?

And while McCain referred to the Senate bill’s 2,400 pages, House Minority Leader John Boehner said “this 2,700-page bill will bankrupt our country.” Historians and molecular physicists would be advised to check, but this may be the first time in the history of America — and the history of physical matter — that a legislative document actually changed in its actual size while lawmakers were in the act of debating its future.

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And leave it to the Republicans to play real small ball. “Mr. President,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) said at one point, “can I just interject one quick point here? Just in terms of trying to keep everything fair, which I know you want to do, to this point, the Republicans have had 24 minutes, the Democrats, 52 minutes. Let's try to have as much balance as we can.”

But that penny-ante, high-school-debate crap was, to invoke lawyerspeak, hardly dispositive. The disparity of speaking minutes may have as much to do with the fact that in the room at Blair House were Republicans who’d made up their minds before they got there that the whole thing was a waste of time, some of whom were no doubt prepared to act accordingly.



Mike Pence, the Indiana Republican Congressman and lately an ardent critic of the Obama health care agenda, proved as much when he went on the air before the summit was even finished. “What I think the American people have seen is almost a professor with a petulant group of students,” he said on MSNBC.

Boehner proved as much when he spoke to AOL News before the summit even started and made the case for scrapping the current bill.

And when the Republicans did speak, it was in the soundbites-and-talking-points style that’s characterized GOP identity for years, with one word or phrase used repeatedly to show just how on-message they were. The Democrats were prone to such rhetorical repetitions, too. But reading the transcript it’s clear the Democratic repeats were elaborations and nuance on strategy, more deeply layered and detailed than the Republicans’ strategic 3x5-card monte.

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The phrase “start over,” or its variants, was used at least half a dozen times by the GOP on Thursday. The Republican embrace of health-care incrementalism surfaced with frequent use of the phrase “step by step.”

There were Republican calls for a “clean sheet of paper,” another Republican favorite (although Illinois Rep. Peter Roskam, apparently having a childhood moment, proposed that the White House “take the Etch-a-Sketch” and begin again [“let’s do incremental things where there's common ground”] — maybe the first time health-care legislation has been so trivialized).

“It was synchronized stalling,” Chris Matthews said on MSNBC’s “Hardball.” “What a flaming embarrassment!”



The Republican tendency to embrace talking points extended to rote, nationalist praise. “This bill is a dangerous experiment with the best healthcare system in the world,” Boehner said.

Rep. John Barrasso of Wyoming said it, too: “I do believe we have the best health care system in the world.”

But the definition of something, anything, as The World’s Best necessarily establishes a universe wider than the few. You can’t have the World’s Best anything if the world — or in this case, the American people — has no real opportunity to experience what you’re talking about.

The world isn’t the primary pool of customers for that health-care system, the American people are. And if the World’s Best health-care system bankrupts the people who need it most, if the World’s Best health-care system is financially accessible to a subset of a subset of a subset of that nation’s population ... how good can it possibly be?



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Old habits are hard to break. As he’s done in the past, Obama made some feints toward bipartisan consensus. Essentially agreeing with the Republicans on incentivizing states to address medical malpractice issues, caps for malpractice lawsuits, and price transparency for medical services.

But by the end, the president’s line in the sand was clear. “Baby steps don’t get you to the place where people need to go. They need help right now. ...

“When I talk to the parents of children who don’t have health care because they’ve got diabetes or they’ve got some chronic heart disease, when I talk to small businesspeople who are laying people off because they just got their insurance premium ... they don’t want us to wait. They can’t afford another five decades.

“The truth of the matter is, politically speaking, there may not be any reason for Republicans to want to do anything. We can debate what our various constituencies think. ...

“If we saw significant movements, not just gestures … you wouldn’t need to start over because essentially everybody here knows what the issues are. And procedurally, it could get done fairly quickly. We cannot have another yearlong debate about this.

“The question I ask all of you is ... Is there enough serious effort that in a month’s time or a few weeks time or six weeks time, we could actually resolve something? And if we can’t, then I think we’ve got to go ahead and make some decisions — and that’s what elections are for. We have honest disagreements about the vision for the country and we’ll go ahead and test those out over the next several months until November.”

With that summary statement, President Obama deftly made the pivot from professor to street fighter. With those words, the Republicans were put on notice: With you or without you, we’re going ahead. Reconciliation, the last tool in the toolbox, may be the best tool in the toolbox.

The Republicans, a long time comfortable doubling down on assumptions that Obama would insist on Bipartisanship No Matter What, got a wake-up call Thursday. The Obama they thought they knew ain’t necessarily so anymore. The hangdog Republican expressions in the room said as much at the end of the day.

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“This is about a fundamental vision of government,” Democratic strategist Donna Brazile said afterwards on CNN. “The Democrats should not fear the future, they should not fear the November elections. They should lead, they should govern.”

And that may be the Democrats’ most effective weapon — a weapon that the Republicans at Blair House seemed to understand:

By losing their concerns over election defeats in November, the Democrats can move almost fearlessly. By indicating a willingness to go “all in” this hand, the Obama White House throws out the powerful suggestion that, vis-à-vis health care, the Democrats may have become that most dangerous political entity: one willing to stand on its principles as a party with nothing to lose but an election, and everything to gain in national credibility before an election.

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The Republicans manned the spin room from almost the minute it was over. But regardless of their efforts, it was obvious the Obama White House had a very good day on Thursday.

Harold Pollack, writing in the New Republic, understood how Obama addressed the political concerns of two national constituencies at once:
“A racially tinged conservative meme is circulating that President Obama delivers a great speech, but that he is all sizzle and no steak, a teleprompter slave. Nobody watching yesterday could believe that meme. The contrast in health policy expertise — and, at times, sheer intellect — between the President and his Republican interlocutors was almost embarrassing. 

A less-toxic but also misleading meme is circulating among progressives that the President doesn't understand or sympathize with the plight of ordinary working people. That meme was debunked, too.”
Michigan Rep. John Dingell, lion of the House, put the bill and its prospects in perspective: “The last perfect legislation that was presented to mankind was delivered to the Israelis at the base of Mt. Sinai,” said Dingell, the second-longest serving member of Congress and present at the creation of the Democrats legislative drive for health-care in 1955.

“It was on stone tablets, written in fingers of God. Nothing like that has been presented to mankind since.

“What we are going to do is not perfect. But it sure will be better and it's going to ease a huge amount of pain and suffering at a cost, which we can afford ... ”

Dingell’s closing statement is as eloquent a call for progress, after almost a year of partisan wrangling, as you could ask for. Dingell knows what’s at stake. He clearly understands that phrase about the good not being held hostage to the perfect. What’s unknown now is whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and others in the Democratic leadership will bring every weapon to bear on advancing this legislation — and not let the good be held hostage to a hoped-for bipartisanship that will never, never materialize.

Obama’s closing statement made it clear: Once you get past the fear of losing an election, you might actually be able to govern. That thought has to be as liberating to the Democrats right now as it is abhorrent to the GOP. Now, with this ball very much in the Democrats’ court, we’ll see if they’ve got the balls to play to win.

Image credits: Obama top: Via Huffington Post. Obama, Kathleen Sebelius and McConnell: The White House. Etch A Sketch: Republished under GNY Free Documentation License v1.2. Dingell: Public domain.

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