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Tilting at Windmills

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February 8, 2010

A NEW ROUTE TO THE SAME DESTINATION?.... Most observers of the health care reform debate thought they saw the road ahead: House would pass the Senate bill, and the Senate would approve improvements through reconciliation. Yesterday, President Obama announced he's taking a detour, which may or may not reach the same destination.

President Obama said Sunday that he would convene a half-day bipartisan health care session at the White House to be televised live this month, a high-profile gambit that will allow Americans to watch as Democrats and Republicans try to break their political impasse.

Mr. Obama made the announcement in an interview on CBS during the Super Bowl pre-game show, capitalizing on a vast television audience. He set out a plan that would put Republicans on the spot to offer their own ideas on health care and show whether both sides are willing to work together.

"I want to come back and have a large meeting, Republicans and Democrats, to go through systematically all the best ideas that are out there and move it forward," Mr. Obama said in the interview from the White House Library.

The president previewed the kind of questions he'll encourage GOP leaders to answer at the Feb. 25 meeting: "How do you guys want to lower costs? How do you guys intend to reform the insurance market so that people with pre-existing conditions, for example, can get health care? How do you want to make sure that the 30 million people who don't have health insurance can get it? What are your ideas specifically?"

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) both accepted the invitation, though they said they'd like to see the reform discussions start from scratch, with the existing proposal thrown out altogether. The president said that's not an option, and that the talks will be focused on considering improvements to the work that's already been done. "This is not starting over," one White House official said. "Don't make any mistake about that. We are coming with our plan. They can bring their plan."

It is, by some appearances, a call-the-bluff moment, with the president daring Republicans to put their cards on the table. There will be a big, detailed policy discussion, aired on C-SPAN for all the world to see, and GOP solutions will be considered, scrutinized, and weighed against Democratic proposals.

The approach is not without risk. The public's appetite for a prolonged health reform debate may be limited, and it's extremely likely that Republicans will simply continue to reject any Democratic idea, regardless of merit, leading to a summit that brings us right back to where we are now.

But that wouldn't necessarily be an awful outcome.

The summit in two weeks appears to be part of a larger political strategy, intended to provide cover for lawmakers and assuage public fears about nefarious back-room deals. Democrats want to be able to say, "We reached out to Republicans, considered their ideas in good faith, and put the whole thing on television in an open and transparent way." The summit may make it easier, especially for some wavering Dems, to move forward without GOP support. "We gave bipartisanship our best shot," they'll say.

Whether one thinks this is wise or not, the planned summit is also a reminder that ... reform isn't dead. On the contrary, President Obama is taking on added responsibilities about moving this process closer to the end game.

We'll have more on this as the summit approaches, but one of the keys to keep in mind here is who's setting the agenda. In other words, participants will be seeking answers to questions the White House selects in advance. The president will start with the end game -- coverage for 30 million uninsured Americans, consumer protections, deficit reduction -- and challenge lawmakers to present ideas to successfully reach these goals.

The White House seems to believe a) Republican ideas will look worse when evaluated closely; b) Democratic ideas will look much better when scrutinized; and c) when it comes to addressing the agreed-upon questions, the way forward will appear much clearer. Subjecting all of this to a transparent, bipartisan discussion may even make it significantly easier to present the package to the electorate.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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Well, as long as it results in PTDB, I can live with it. As for me, it's gonna be must-see-teevee!

Posted by: Sandlapper on February 8, 2010 at 8:11 AM | PERMALINK

Call their bluff, indeed.

And the Leader of the Republican Party will respond, in writing. (A few, terse words; there isn't all that much room on her palm. . .)

Posted by: DAY on February 8, 2010 at 8:13 AM | PERMALINK

I wonder if they will bring along Ms Palin as their official adviser.

Posted by: Joan on February 8, 2010 at 8:21 AM | PERMALINK

Well the Republicans will sit there like churlish children smirking and snarling then run to all of the cable news station for a round the clock "mean girls" session. That will be their contribution.

Posted by: SaintZak on February 8, 2010 at 8:21 AM | PERMALINK

I read a study yesterday that said health care costs will continue to rise, in 5 years there may be 10 million more americans without health insurance.

Posted by: JS on February 8, 2010 at 8:24 AM | PERMALINK

I think it's definitely a call-their-bluff moment. If he can get some Republicans to say that they support one measure or another, then they can introduce that as a bill and see if Republicans will filibuster as a group. I really do think this will put pressure on people like Snowe and Collins who are supposedly moderate. It would also be interesting to see if he calls out Scott Brown, who voted yes on similar legislation in Massachusetts but says he'll vote no now.

I wonder if Obama will discuss the public option. That would be interesting.

Posted by: Unstable Isotope on February 8, 2010 at 8:28 AM | PERMALINK

Hopefully the FT article describing the "Chicago crew" sinking President Obama was read by, President Obama.

Posted by: r_m on February 8, 2010 at 8:32 AM | PERMALINK

Color me skeptical. The optics are beyond terrible. I can only guess that Pelosi doesn't have the votes to pass the Senate bill.

Posted by: BrklynLibrul on February 8, 2010 at 8:36 AM | PERMALINK

It would indeed seem that the point of the exercise is to provide significant cover for doing the right thing. The smartest thing the Republicans could do right now, is actually bring something worthwhile to the table. But of course we know they can be counted on not to do so.

Posted by: Paul Dirks on February 8, 2010 at 8:39 AM | PERMALINK

re: the Democratic ideas looking better w/exposure, that's a good bet, since most surveys have shown that the public likes them once they actually hear what they are. As for the GOP ideas, there's really only two of them: cross-state marketing of insurance plans + tort reform. Again, it's a good bet that people *won't* like them once they see what weak broth they are.

Then again, the MSM in its attempts to look 'fair and balanced' will, no doubt, portray GOP + Democratic ideas as entirely equivalent.


Posted by: Zorro on February 8, 2010 at 8:40 AM | PERMALINK

The problem is that the reason Republican ideas about changing the health care system are bad is because they are more giveaways to the rich. Democrats, afraid of being accused of "class warfare", have shied away from making that point.

Only the well-off can afford to fund their own health savings accounts, so tax incentives become another tax cut for the rich.

The Republican idea of "tort reform" is to limit the amount of money that plaintiff's lawyers can make. Many people who sue for malpractice can only get a lawyer to look at a case because the lawyer will get to take a percentage of the settlement or judgement. So under the Republican idea of reform, anyone who can't write out a $10,000 check as a legal retainer doesn't deserve to be able to sue. Suing for malpractice shouldn't be like winning the lottery but it has to remain an option for everyone, regardless of their net worth.

Posted by: SteveT on February 8, 2010 at 8:40 AM | PERMALINK

This what I've been talking about!

This is a debate. You can call it whatever you want, but that's what its going to come down to in the end.

Let's debate the MERITS of each plan, ON TV, and noone's gonna get away with BS talking points, because they will be rebutted, IMMEDIATELY, ON LIVE TV.

It's time for the GOP to do some 'splainin'.

More of this, please.

Posted by: bdop4 on February 8, 2010 at 8:40 AM | PERMALINK

"it's extremely likely that Republicans will simply continue to reject any Democratic idea, regardless of merit, leading to a summit that brings us right back to where we are now.
But that wouldn't necessarily be an awful outcome."
... which is nowhere. All talk. No action. Obama's preference.

Our Compromiser-in Chief needs something Progressive to compromise with. The Progressives should make their demands known--- an that they are intransigent as well. Not only public option-- but single payer as well. Activate Obama's primal instinct to compromise on something other than half-way between the Blue Dogs and the Tea Baggers.

Posted by: gdb on February 8, 2010 at 8:42 AM | PERMALINK

This is a very smart move from Obama and - and as an additional benefit this is in line with his vow to change the tone of Washington.

We have heard many ill informed statements about Obama compromising too much or that he isn't being clear enough about what he wants but that tends to ignore a few things. First, any law that is passed is an act of compromise. Obama is interested in more than points scoring rather he wants to get something done. That is to be respected not ridiculed. I bet the same people who have a go at Obama because of compromise are also the same people that ridicule the Republicans for not compromising at all!

Second, it seems to me that when Obama does make it clear what he wants that also doesn't go down well. Remember the excise tax that Obama wanted? or the itemised deductions for charitable giving? no one wanted him to show clarity for that and no-one criticised him for compromising on those things when he had to.

I think the hyperventilation about this new proposal is classic beltway washington trying to find a hidden meaning in everything. Isn't it just an indication that Obama still wants to do this and that either it will result in a workable compromise with Republicans on board or it won't in which case reconciliation will be easier to justify?

Posted by: homerhk on February 8, 2010 at 8:55 AM | PERMALINK

If successful, this could be the beginning of regular use of televised 'debates' for major legislation. If it goes anything like the House-Obama debate recently, the time of obfuscation and posturing may well be past.

Let's hope the format is similar. And like gdb, I wonder if it is not only Democrats, but progressive Democrats, who will also get a chance along with Republicans to put forth their plans. If cost-savings is truly the goal, it might be quite entertaining to see a structured, well-presented argument explaining the PO and its merits.

Posted by: terraformer on February 8, 2010 at 8:59 AM | PERMALINK

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and expecting different results (paraphrased). Exactly how is this reaching out to Republicans supposed to produce different results?

Posted by: msmolly on February 8, 2010 at 9:01 AM | PERMALINK

Obama laid down the markers that define an acceptable plan; some minimal insurance coverage for the unwashed masses, lower premium costs, allow pre-existing conditions, revenue-neutral, etc. There should be consequences for participating in this and the subsequent meeting. Ideas will be heard and submitted on their possible merits in several complete proposals for scoring by the CBO. Make in painfully clear that the plan with the best score will be the one the White House wants passed, even if it is the one that calls for elimination of the insurance company anti-trust exemption and a strong public option. Oh hell, who am I kidding? Of course Obama will accept the one that a few Rethugs will accept but ultimately refuse to vote for. What a damn tool.

Posted by: Chopin on February 8, 2010 at 9:01 AM | PERMALINK

The Party of NEVER, being forced to go on the record as a deceitful bunch of "anti-Americanists?"* I look forward to the event with unbridled anticipation. The menu in my house that day will include chicken---so that when the Republicans don't bother showing up, y'all can say that they were "otherwise engaged...."

*I'm copyrighting the term. It applies to "all things, living or not, that are not Democratic."

Posted by: S. Waybright on February 8, 2010 at 9:07 AM | PERMALINK

Just because you invite them to put up or shut up does not mean they will do either.

The combined forces of the GOP noise machine and MSM will make the case the Dems refused to act in good faith by starting from scratch and that will be the end of it.

They are already doing Start From Scratch push polling her in AL, and I suspect elsewhere. I look for that to be the GOP's "plan".

Posted by: martin on February 8, 2010 at 9:08 AM | PERMALINK

The problem isn't that Obama has compromised too much, it's that progressives in both houses - especially the Senate - have given up too much without convincing any Republicans to support the plan. It's too bad Obama didn't call this meeting six months ago, when the public option was still on the table.

Posted by: KTinOhio on February 8, 2010 at 9:13 AM | PERMALINK

Asinine move by Obama.

It will just be a forum for Repubs to do their grandstanding.

Nothing good will come out of it.

This will be beginning of the end of the Obama presidency.

Posted by: gregor on February 8, 2010 at 9:22 AM | PERMALINK

Obama will carefully explain that we need the individual mandate or the whole plan fails because if you can't be turned down for a pre-existing condition, and everybody can buy insurance only when they get sick, the system crumbles. The Republicans will stick their fingers in their ears and scream that the individual mandate is a tax and the excise tax is a tax and they will never support tax increases. End of discussion. And more than half the country will AGREE with the Republicans. And that will be the final nail in the coffin of health care reform.

Posted by: dalloway on February 8, 2010 at 9:31 AM | PERMALINK

The Repugs are alrady disparaging the get together. This morning on the local right-leaning local radio show, Paul Ryan came on and touted his "it's not a budget" budget. Then he basically said that the debate was going to be scripted by the white house and that all of the backroom deals will still be going on once the cameras are off.


Posted by: Gridlock on February 8, 2010 at 9:33 AM | PERMALINK

Gregor, perhaps... I'm hoping that the Re-puke-lican leadership is thinking the same, this is a chance for GrandStanding... yet probably similar thoughts went through the House Re-puke leader's minds when agreed that the Q/A with President Obama would be televised - that seemded to back-fire for them.

Posted by: sduffys on February 8, 2010 at 9:35 AM | PERMALINK

This is exactly why PTDB got nowhere. Because Obama could at any moment come in and pull the rug out with another "compromise." And look, he's doing just that! So now nothing happens for another 2.5 weeks, Obama will look bad if he holds a summit and nothing comes from it and so we'll get nowhere again.

Posted by: Rob on February 8, 2010 at 9:38 AM | PERMALINK

"The White House seems to believe a) Republican ideas will look worse when evaluated closely; b) Democratic ideas will look much better when scrutinized; and c) when it comes to addressing the agreed-upon questions, the way forward will appear much clearer. Subjecting all of this to a transparent, bipartisan discussion may even make it significantly easier to present the package to the electorate."

This is all assuming people are really gonna pay attention in the first place. Not too optimistic about that, personally.

Posted by: EriktheRed on February 8, 2010 at 9:44 AM | PERMALINK

I think the summit is at least interesting, but it will probably please no one: if there's a workable compromise, it's probably deeply scaled back from where the previous bills were, which makes a hash of "Senate Bill plus changes" or wherever the discussion last stalled. Progressives will be deeply disillusioned by a process that amounts to some incremental reforms while leaving big deals - certainly single payer - way off in the distance, yet again. It's also hard to see how a meeting like this can get a dialogue going on the hard parts of reform, like Medicare reimbursement rates or serious reforms to Medicaid that are at the heart of both the healthcare problems we face and the budget crisis.

Then, too, I think it's telling that Benen and others continue to look at the optics of reform in terms of political gains or loss; until the real goal here is trying to use negotiations to find the best policy solutions, regardless of political gamesmanship... we're not likely to get much. If the point is to get Republicans in a room and embarrass them until they lose, that's neither a strategy for future cooperation or making a good deal on health. And I think in our cynical times, more than a few Dems are just as happy to see compromise fail as conservatives are; if that's a better way to win more seats... why not? If we're going to get real progress on healthcare... then the goal needs to be about policy, more than politics.

Posted by: weboy on February 8, 2010 at 10:00 AM | PERMALINK

Oh no! Steve Benen has fallen for the Republican trick. Mitch McConnell is not the Senate Majority Leader. The Dems still lead 59-41.

Posted by: Eric on February 8, 2010 at 10:04 AM | PERMALINK

Democrats want to be able to say, "We reached out to Republicans, considered their ideas in good faith ... We gave bipartisanship our best shot,"

Why can't they say this already? Yet another C-SPAN confab that low-information voters will ignore, leaving us pretty much where we are right now.

Democrats in Senate/House: You are all in on this already. The only way forward is passing the damn bill. Get it done, or prepare to get gone in November.

Posted by: jimBOB on February 8, 2010 at 10:13 AM | PERMALINK

jimBOB is right, this is simply playing defense to the "C-SPAN criticism".

So I hope the Dems come up with some solid offensive move in the meantime. It's time for an onside kick, a la the New Orleans Saints...!

Posted by: Ohioan on February 8, 2010 at 10:19 AM | PERMALINK
And more than half the country will AGREE with the Republicans. And that will be the final nail in the coffin of health care reform.

Gee, maybe the idiots in the Senate should have thought of that before coming up with a sure political loser like the excise tax.

Posted by: Steve LaBonne on February 8, 2010 at 10:33 AM | PERMALINK

Or, the Prez really does believe that it is possible to improve the plan through bipartisan participation, if both side work in good faith.

Posted by: snart on February 8, 2010 at 10:46 AM | PERMALINK

Obama had better spend the next two weeks studying up on the specific facts debunking all the GOP talking points, so he has them ready. The Republicans are trained masters of the truthy soundbite, and are skilled in the delivery of completely absurd things with the absolute confidence and calm assurance that sells so well on TV. They also use the "MIRV Lies" technique: packing so many independent lies into one sentence that, even if you debunk one, the rest get through to lodge in the listeners' mind.

Much as I would enjoy the spectacle of watching Obama deftly use facts and reason to clobber the GOP claim that they have "ideas" that "haven't been listened to", he's talking about playing with fire here. He caught them flat-footed at their meeting the other day; there's no guarantee they won't have their A game ready for this.

Posted by: biggerbox on February 8, 2010 at 10:50 AM | PERMALINK

Obama is a very mysterious guy. How many times is he going to say just one more time to the opposition ? The 2010 congressional campaign is already underway. How many losses has Rahm the man calculated are acceptable ? I've reached the point where I no longer give a shit what the GOP has to offer. They had a chance for an entire year and didn't use it. Maybe someone taught the president that the other cheek was on his ass.

Posted by: rbe1 on February 8, 2010 at 10:52 AM | PERMALINK

I see my comment from two days ago made it into the "suggestion box" over at the WH.

I see Gray @ 5:11 beat me to it. Now would be an excellent time for Obama to pull Reid, Pelosi, and any other necessary parties into a room with a C-span coverage and begin hammering out the compromises on national TV. Screw Republicans. Let America see how grown-ups do legislation. Keep the promise of transparency, alleviate fears of backroom deals, and bring reality TV loving Americans into the process.

Legislation is messy I know, and that idea probably wouldn't work very well, but it should be done anyway.

Get America involved in a way Republicans would never dare do business.

Posted by: oh my on February 6, 2010 at 7:02 PM

I liked (and still like) the optics of doing business out in the open, but bringing Republicans on board does a lot to muddy the water considerably. I envisioned an earnest hashing out of ideas already on the table between democrats on the left, center, and right, not a potential "you lie" moment for Republicans. Anyway.... the offer is on the table so success will boil down to format and preparedness.

Just how is this exchanging of ideas going to take place and under what kind style of format will it take place?

Republicans will have one objective in this endeavor and that is to use their Frank Luntz rhetoric to make viewers feel a connection to their bullshit. And believe me, Frank is going to be one busy beaver between now and the confab. Republican prediction: lots of phony assertions (e.g. saying "America has spoken they don't want the bill" or "this bill will bankrupt the country" while relying on old, incomplete CBO scores) + discredited ideas (e.g. tort reform, tax credits, and interstate insurance will save the day) + whining (e.g. we need to hit the reset button) = plan to sink an already listing ship.

Democrats had better show up very prepared not just to get into gritty details but come out with Luntz style messaging of their own. Because in the end , public perception of this won't depend on CBO scores and cost savings projection charts, it will depend on which side the public feels a connection to. The party that seems most sincere and passionate about their case will likely win that.

Posted by: oh my on February 8, 2010 at 10:54 AM | PERMALINK


This isn't "reaching out to Republicans."

This is "show us your plan and tell us how it will result in expanded coverage and reduced costs. Then we'll show you how that's totally wishful thinking and how the mechanics of our plan actually accomplishes those objectives."

I haven't seen any GOP "idea" that actually explained the mechanics. It's all based on "government is bad, freee markets are good and wonderful things will happen if you just cut taxes and reduce regulation." It's pure religion.

Posted by: bdop4 on February 8, 2010 at 10:59 AM | PERMALINK

The President's political skills continue to surprise and delight me. This is perfect. Now all we have to do is challenge all of our crazy uncles, redneck cousins, weird neighbors to watch it on CSpan. This is Obama using the pulpit he has to counteract the nonsense going on in the MSM.

Posted by: GrammyPat on February 8, 2010 at 11:14 AM | PERMALINK

I haven't seen any GOP "idea" that actually explained the mechanics. It's all based on "government is bad, freee markets are good and wonderful things will happen if you just cut taxes and reduce regulation." It's pure religion.

Or, to put it another way:

1) Cut taxes + reduce regulation
2) ?
3) Profit!


Posted by: Zorro on February 8, 2010 at 11:15 AM | PERMALINK

If the thugs can create the general impression that Obama is an arrogant intellectual elite,..., Obama's presidency could effectively be over. They don't have to win a debate to do that. They are not bound by any rules of decency. If they exasperate Obama to the point of anger with willful
obtuseness and obfuscation, they win. This a heck of a risk for very little gain.

Posted by: Michael7843853 on February 8, 2010 at 11:17 AM | PERMALINK

The strongest argument the GOP has is "OMG! this is a government takeover of healthcare", coupled with the argument that everyone in this country already has health care because everyone can go to an emergency room. Though wrong, these points have a strong appeal to independents and conservatives *and they are easily understandable.

They must be neutralized with something equally simple and straightforward. Meet them head-on. YES, the government is going to get involved in ensuring that *everyone has access to affordable, BASIC healthcare. However, there will continue to be a private insurance market for everything beyond that. This is the system throughout much of the world, and it works *very well. A two-tiered system will solve the problems in the current system while preserving the elements that work.

Posted by: FC on February 8, 2010 at 11:57 AM | PERMALINK


This is "show us your plan and tell us how it will result in expanded coverage and reduced costs. Then we'll show you how that's totally wishful thinking and how the mechanics of our plan actually accomplishes those objectives." - bdop4

is where this is going.

At a half day long, it certainly doesn't allow much time for much more than that. If the gathering veers off into GOP populism over government takeovers (which is where the GOP will want to take it) or Dem populism about no mandates without a PO (which is where the GOP also wouldn't mind taking it) I don't think the results will be good.

This a heck of a risk for very little gain.

A lot of risk, but there is a reward. This public play isn't for assuaging the public, it's for fence sitting Dems to feel a boot in their ass.

Posted by: oh my on February 8, 2010 at 1:02 PM | PERMALINK

If the Dems have the courage of their convictions, they should be excited about this meeting. It's designed to destroy GOP sound bites with reasoned, fact-based discussion. There is a reason that the GOP leadership is nervous; they know that their bluff is being called. Health care reform is badly needed, and this bill addresses all of the main problems in a comprehensive manner. This plan is light years ahead of what the GOP has come up with; they haven't been serious about addressing the real issues and now their "playing politics" is about to bite them in the rear. This summit (if it happens, I think the GOP will back out) will appeal to independents and moderates from both parties.

Posted by: danimal on February 8, 2010 at 1:40 PM | PERMALINK

This open discussion is for the American public..
The GOP must bring their plan, one that differs from the plan that they agreed upon December 24, 2009. We, the public get to see what is so wrong with what has been drafted and HOW the GOP will improve it. Since we know what is their talking point of a plan, this gives the Democratics and this WH the leverage to move forward, make the changes needed (Please add the public option) and get this bill signed. BECAUSE the American people would have seen and heard the truth. We will not be able to say when it is inacted, we did not know. We will know what the reform is and who cooperated.

Posted by: Sharon on February 8, 2010 at 2:43 PM | PERMALINK

When the President gives a 35 minute address to the nation when he signs the Senate bill into law (while simultaneously urging the Senate to accept by majority vote the amendments the House has already passed), a 10-minute section devoted to explaining in digestible detail what is in the bill and why, with examples of specific benefits reaching the great majority of Americans, and what is not in the bill and why not, it will do 10 times more to advance public knowledge and public support than 10 days of C-Span conferences.

Posted by: urban legend on February 8, 2010 at 5:00 PM | PERMALINK

Can we PLEASE get President Obama -- one of the most eloquent leaders in American history -- to stop calling people "guys"?

Posted by: BuffaloHarold on February 8, 2010 at 5:22 PM | PERMALINK
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