President Obama's speech on Wednesday calling for an up-or-down vote on health care reform should be a model for the rest of his presidency. It is not a superlative piece of rhetoric. It doesn't fairly describe Republicans' ideas or motivations. And it's made up of boilerplate arguments about health care reform. But Obama does one thing crucial: he finally takes a stand against bipartisanship. He musters the words "fundamental disagreement." Obama said:
Many Republicans in Congress just have a fundamental disagreement over whether we should have more or less oversight of insurance companies. And if they truly believe that less regulation would lead to higher quality, more affordable health insurance, then they should vote against the proposal I've put forward.
I imagine this is a difficult passage for Obama. Bipartisanship, consensus, mutual understanding: these values are woven into the president's political DNA. Bipartisanship formed the core of his first year of presidential addresses. Consensus lived at the heart of his Democratic National Convention speech (we've got God in the blue states and gay friends in the red states...). Mutual understanding was the thesis of his superior speech on race. Acknowledging fundamental disagreement is anathema to the Obama brand. But sometimes disagreement is all you've got. Republicans won't vote to spend an extra $180 billion a year on health care by 2020 -- not ever. It's not because they haven't been nicely asked. It's not because they haven't heard the right arguments yet. It's because raising taxes violates their policy priorities and their political prospects.
Closing the door on the bipartisan phantom was Obama's coda on health care reform. But should it have been his opening argument? To lean on bipartisanship for as long as Obama did -- to court Republicans incessantly; to give Sen. Max Baucus months to hammer out a deal; to continue to appeal to GOP support in the face of clear evidence that none was there -- was harmful. Imagine if he had forced Baucus to junk the interminable Gang of Six and write the bill with Democrats. Imagine if he presented the bill by mid-summer, expedited approval from unions and key Democratic constituencies, made his universal mandate pitch simple -- "We cannot reform health care for everybody unless everybody has health care" -- and cast Republicans and insurance companies upfront as wicked bedfellows fundamentally in opposition to a bill that would make health care more universal, more fair, more democratic ...
I suppose the White House would argue that appearing to elicit GOP support was necessary to "create the political breathing room" for conservative Democrats to vote for the bill (if they do). Maybe that's right. But when you repeatedly tell Americans that you know consensus is within reach, the failure to reach a deal looks less like the other side's obstructionism and more like your own shortcoming. By elevating bipartisanship to a lofty virtue, by pretending that fundamental differences did not exist, the White House fetishized an invisible consensus that Americans begin to value, and expect, and demand and neither party expected to materialize.
Today acknowledging fundamental differences over health reform is a matter of face-saving, but it is also a matter of substance. If the two parties disagree on major issues, the honest thing to say is that both sides agree on the problem and disagree on the solution. Robert Gibbs likes to occasionally call on Congress to "put aside partisan differences." But of course, partisan differences is a puckish euphemism for "what people think." Why would anybody expect -- or ask voters to expect -- an elected official to put aside his values on the "most important piece of legislation in a generation"? The logic behind bipartisanship as a virtue is twisted, and yet Washington puts it on a pedestal above policy.
I hope Obama carries a lesson forward: Sometimes, the only consensus or mutual understanding between two sides is that there is neither consensus nor mutual understanding. This thing sounds old. But this thing is true.
*I mean about fundamental disagreement. The actual binary at play here -- Republicans want to protect private insurance companies at all costs; Democrats want to reform them -- is imperfect. The more accurate dichotomy is: Democrats want to insure every American and that costs money; Republicans don't want to spend any money, and so their plans barely extend coverage. The important thing is that Obama has drawn the line in the sand, with Republicans on one side and Democrats on the other.
Update: Jim Fallows is right.