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    Bipartisanship as Theater

    So President Obama's health care summit didn't go anywhere it wasn't expected to go. The Democrats made noises about bipartisan compromise and asked for Republican input. The Republicans demanded the whole bill (or more accurately both the bills) be scrapped entirely. The Democrats got no concessions. No reasonable person would have expected anything else at this point. And Barack Obama, who is a fairly reasonable person, must have expected to play out much the way it did.

    This was meant as pure theatrical politics. Obama was making a gesture of generosity and open-mindedness, for which he got nothing. That may sound all too familiar, but this time he made a magnanimous gesture and got rebuffed on national TV. Basically, it was a full work day of Republicans complaining that they weren't being listened to while the leader of the free world sat there patiently listening to them.

    And that is what the health care summit was all about. It was designed to make Obama look conciliatory and the Republicans look churlish. The GOP didn't do as badly as they might have, but still badly enough that Obama is probably satisfied with his day's work.

    The question isn't whether health care reform will be passed with "bipartisan" support or not. That ship sailed long ago. The question is whether the Republicans will be able to spin their own partisan intractability as the Democrats' refusal to compromise. That's clearly been Plan A, Plan B and Plan C for the Congressional GOP: stonewall the bill at every turn and complain that they're not being allowed any say. The televised summit was designed to undermine that plan by making the Republicans own their obstructionism and take the consequences.

    It's not 11-dimensional chess. It's a pretty legible political tactic. And it was probably worth a day out of Barack Obama's life.



    I think the premise you've outlined here is pretty reasonable, Dr. C.  The thing that I wonder about it is this: Why wait a year to make such a move?  Did Obama just recently figure out that he wasn't going to get any blood from this rock?  If not, why waste a year on the rest of the sturm and drang?  Baucus, Grassley, et al?  An ice cold bully pulpit in the midst of deliriously high polling numbers?  That's the part that seems amateurish to me.

    Excellent point. You know, even way back in the Democratic primary, Obama had a tendency to be politically reactive. Whenever he plays aggressive politics, he plays it well, but he always seems to hold his fire until his opponent is about to shoot him in the head. There is some sense to this approach--he doesn't overreact, and he does seem to get what he wants in the end while maintaining that reputation for coolness under fire. But I worry that one of these days, he's going to wait too long and get shot. And even he pulls this bill off, I think everybody would have been a lot happier without the yearlong circus--much as we would have been happier without the last four months of the primary.

    Speaking of the primary, I think that's the metaphor that got a certain Senator from New York in a bit of trouble.

    Er.. wait.  Maybe she was just openly speculating about the probability of him actually being shot.

    Yes, I hesitated before employing the metaphor and then recklessly charged ahead. So shoot me.

    Obviously, I agree that HCR hasn't been handled ideally. I suspect Obama realizes this now, too. Either he'll learn from those mistakes (and every new president has to learn on the job in some crucial ways) or he won't.

    In a more local way, the timing is easy to understand. Obama is through with the nonsense, and going to make HCR happen no matter what. The prelude to using reconciliation and winning on a party-line vote is this public gesture of bipartisanship. He's holding out an olive branch, which he knows will be refused, because he has the invasion landing prepared.

    Why did he wait so long? It's a good question, which I expect people in the West Wing have obsessed about. I don't actually believe that he didn't perceive the obstructionism of the GOP at large. He clearly set out to pick off just a few Republican votes in the Senate. (Recently some anonymous Blue Dog senator was carping about this during a blind-source attack on Rahm Emanuel; the complaint was that the White House had only tried to pick up a few moderates from the other side, when what was "supposed" to happen was an attempt to pick up 20 or 30 Republicans. That complaint actually made me think much better of Rahm.)

    What Obama didn't count on was, first, the GOP's unprecedented party discipline. The stumbling block has been not being able to peel off those two or four Republicans, and to be fair, in the past peeling off moderates for a centrist bill has worked. In the past, picking off Snowe/Collins/Voinovich/etc. would have worked. The Republicans are genuinely playing the game differently, and Obama didn't see that coming.

    The second thing Obama seems not to have expected in the deep appeal of irrationality. It's pretty clear that he didn't think the Town Hall and Tea Party lunacy would actually manage to move political situation at all, and I'll confess that I didn't either. I figured that the craziness would be counter-productive. Obama doesn't seem like a person who has much use for intemperate nuttiness himself, and I doubt he can really imagine why anyone would give those people ear. He figured that the general public would back the plan that polls all said they backed.

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