So, the health care summit. What do we think?
Well, like the rest of the press, I think it was a phenomenal waste of time, if you thought we were maybe going to make some kind of policy progress. What did we learn from the summit? Hold onto your seats folks: Democrats want to do comprehensive health care reform . . . but Republicans don't!
But of course, that wasn't really the point of the summit. The question is, what was the point?
There are two possibilities. The first is that Democrats simply needed to give the appearance of consulting Republicans so that they could go ahead and do reconciliation. Maybe that's what they thought they were doing, and if so, well, mission accomplished. But is this actually the issue? The bigger problem is that the bill is unpopular. And the locus of legislative action is not the Senate where you (maybe) have enough liberal senators to do the thing, even if Blanche Lincoln gets the vapors. The issue is in the House, where members are not eager to pass a controversial bill with unacceptably liberal abortion language.
So what's the alternative? That Democrats actually wanted to improve the image of the bill. And if so, I don't think they sold it. Most people didn't watch Kathleen Sebelius do a yeoman's job of explaining pooling problems. They saw the news clips, where, as I predicted, we saw much play of Obama's testy response to McCain ("We're not campaigning any more, John). It made him look ungracious, and played into a pre-existing narrative that Democrats think their 2008 victory gave them a license to steamroller Republicans and voters. McCain's polite response didn't improve matters, from the Democratic perspective; apparently, McCain is a better loser than our president is a winner.
On a side note, Republicans had their good speakers speak. Democrats had their leadership speak. And Democrats got twice as much air time as Republicans, a fact that was being widely discussed on cable news last night. That's sort of natural, given that Obama was moderating the thing, but the Democratic congressional delegation also got a slight edge, which was not smart if you want to claim that you're making every effort to listen to Republican ideas.
Also, though Democrats were swooning over Obama's Q&A with the Republicans, this really isn't Obama's best format. He won that round because he wasn't playing against the A team. This time he was facing only the best players, and he failed to deliver good sound bites. His closing, where he should have gone in for the kill, was rambling, counterproductive (he managed to admit that Democrats probably wouldn't vote for anything Republicans put up, either, which totally undercut the whole point of the conference), and eminently un-telegenic . . . which is why the news cycle is apparently being dominated by his exchange with McCain.
I also think Democrats made a tactical mistake in trying to frame the bill as chock full of Republican ideas. Maybe this makes Republicans sound hopeless obstructionist, but maybe it just makes you sound like derivative idiots whose bill is so bad that Republicans won't even sign onto it when you put a bunch of their ideas in.
But I don't really know if it matters. The longer these things wear on, the more hardened opinion gets. I never saw this moving the needle of public opinion. Democrats have to decide if they want to ignore what the voters think, knowing that this will be an issue in the next election. I doubt they will, but maybe they care enough to toss away the house and the senate. After all, what's the point of winning elections if you don't get to push through your policy agenda?
Photo credit: Pete Souza/White House