President Obama's bipartisan health care summit on Thursday is being described as "political theater of the highest order" and "kabuki." But it's really more like a Broadway musical revival. Everybody knows the songs and dances, and we're only watching to see how the actors make the old material feel new. We know the president's plan, because he's released it. We know the Senate Democrats' bill, because we've been living with it for almost six months. We know the Republicans' position because, economically, it consists of two letters: no.
Still things could get interesting. I have three questions in advance of tomorrow's bipartisan playtime:
1) Will the medium be the message? The summit begins at 10:00AM and is scheduled to run for six hours. I don't see an enormous number of Americans skipping work to watch at home. That means the event will come down to moments re-playable on cable and evening news shows. It won't be enough for Democrats to say "Didn't you notice that the GOP just had this pervasive, obstructionist attitude the whole time?" because that doesn't come across in a clip. Democrats want to make news tomorrow.
It doesn't matter that the event is designed to be a conversational symposium. Its audience will follow it via a TV recap, which means the highlights will have to fit into the same sound-bite straitjacket as every other piece of news. Both sides know this, and I suspect they'll show up ready to sling one-liners like bullets in High Noon.
2) What will Republicans actually do? Politics, like poker, is best when the players don't know each others' hands. The wonderfully bizarre and fascinating thing about this event is that everybody's hands have been face-up on the table for months. Even liberal writers are acknowledging that the bipartisan summit is essentially a scheduled trap designed to ensnare the GOP so that Democrats can point to specific moments of unfair, hyper-partisan obstructionism. So I'm fascinated to see how Republicans handle the summit. Will they aim for sound bites perfectly manicured for a Fox News audience? Will they aim to be ponderously thoughtful on the issue of, say, tort reform to turn the event into the world's most boring think tank, and starve the summit of any telegenic energy? More broadly, what lessons did they take from their proper thwacking at the House Republicans Retreat?
3) How will Obama game bipartisanship? I think Clive Crook is right on this: This summit isn't about persuading Republicans to vote for health care reform. Instead, it's about persuading Democrats to vote for health care reform. This persuasion could come in various forms: Republicans could make fools of themselves at the event and experience a public backlash; or American viewers could "recognize" that health care reform is a sensible, even moderate, solution.
But what's the best way for Obama to demonstrate that health care reform is sensible and moderate? Will he purposefully elide reasonable "conservative" health care reforms in his opening statement, so that he can easily adopt them later and say, "Look we acted in good faith and took some of their suggestions"? Or will he open with a litany of compromises they've already made with Republicans -- insurance policies across state lines, high risk pools, etc -- to preemptively undercut their argument that the bill is far left?