The Health Care Summit: Just Theater?

At six hours long, that would be one epic play

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Is Thursday's six-hour summit on health-care legislation--assumed dead by many in January--anything other than theater? On the one hand, Democrats and Republicans have already scripted their "post-summit messages" and handed them off to Politico's Mike Allen before the event has even begun. On the other hand, The Washington Post's E. J. Dionne goes so far as to say that the outcome of the summit "will determine the shape of American politics for the next three years." So what's the deal?

  • 'Lights, Camera, Bipartisanship!' reads Karen Travers's headline for ABC News. "What happens," she asks, "when you put President Obama, members of Congress and three cameras in one room--bipartisan compromise on contentious health care legislation or pandering for the television audience?" The political analysts she quotes come down on both sides, but she ends with a quote from Republican Tony Fratto, who suggests that putting everything in front of a camera could reduce partisan finger-pointing. The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder and CBS News's Mark Knoller are less optimistic about the effect of transparency, thinking "the presence of television cameras makes it unlikely for a bipartisan breakthrough."
  • Even Audience Not Expecting Much "There is unlikely to be much bipartisan agreement on a plan that the president is presenting today," writes Mark Silva for the Chicago Tribune, "and public expectations for an agreement are not running very high."
  • And There Won't Even Be That Big of an Audience "Live viewing will be limited to those who watch live via C-SPAN, cable news networks or the internet," Pollster's Mark Blumenthal reminds readers, picking at the hype about an "audience of millions" for the summit. "As such, that audience is likely to be a significantly smaller than the numbers that watched the Obama-McCain debates or typically tune into prime-time presidential addresses." He estimates that the summit will likely draw a "single digit percentage of all American voters." Then again, he points out, "this event is extremely important with one small but very crucial audience: The members of the House and Senate and the news junkies that surround and advise them."
  • 'Six Hours of Health Care Fun,' responds The Washington Post's Ezra Klein dryly, when asked what to expect from the summit. He doesn't predict much "substantive compromise," but does say that what to watch for is the fight over the reconciliation process.

  • What It's Really About Marc Ambinder's conclusion: "today's meeting is not about policy breakthroughs: it's about putting Republicans into a box and moving public opinion." At Time, Karen Tumulty and Kate Pickert agree. This "political show" is being put on for "the American people. For the White House, it is also a badly needed opportunity to change the dynamic around the President's signature domestic policy initiative." Then there's Jonathan Cohn. In a ceaselessly earnest piece for The New Republic, he discusses the urgency of the health care situation in this country. This summit is the last chance, he says, and it's "about how best to solve this problem."
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