GOP 1, Obama 1, Democrats 0

Obama and Republicans seemed reasonable. That’s bad news for Democrats.

If the White House health care summit was political theater, here’s a 30-second review: President Obama won. So did congressional Republicans. Democrats in Congress need another act. This is not because Obama is such a better speaker and advocate for the legislation than his allies, though he is. It’s because Democrats didn’t get much political benefit from the event.

Obama ran for office promising to reach out to the other party. He said he would try to find areas of common agreement, and when his opponents had a legitimate philosophical disagreement, he would not question their motives. He did all of that in the session. Obama was not the crazy liberal caricature of GOP attacks during the seven-hour iron-bottom discussion. (Which may itself have been bad for the health of the people in the room.)

Republicans came out ahead for the same reason: They did not look like hell-bent obstructionists. This isn’t to say that they tried to meet the president halfway. They didn’t even try to meet him a quarter of the way. Repeatedly they called on him to start over. The president tried to get the room to focus on areas of agreement, and though several Republicans—notably Sen. Tom Coburn and Rep. Dave Camp—worked in that spirit, several others (hello, Reps. John Boehner and Eric Cantor) did not.

John McCain offered a prolonged critique. Obama had promised to hold negotiations in public, and he didn’t. He promised not to negotiate behind closed doors, but he did. He is thinking about using reconciliation to pass the bill. “John, the campaign is over,” Obama said in response, showing mild irritation. But how did he repay McCain’s political shots? Later, he agreed with McCain that there should be no special deals for various states in the bill. (McCain was so surprised, he almost couldn’t take yes for an answer.) At another point, Obama praised McCain for sticking to his principles by not voting for Medicare Part D in 2007. 

This is why it wasn’t a good day for congressional Democrats. According to strategists involved in 2010 races, fence-sitting Democrats needed to see Obama change the political dynamic. He needed to show how health care reform could be defended and how Republicans could be brought low. He did neither. White House aides and the president himself said he was going to press Republicans for how their plans would work, but he did that only twice—and mildly. There was no put-up-or-shut-up moment.

Obama debated Republicans vigorously and with precision—but it looked like a debate among people with actual philosophical differences, which in part it was. After an in-the-weeds debate about how the Congressional Budget Office accounted for premium increases, it became clear that the debate was between Democrats who want to set minimum standards for coverage and Republicans who want the market and individual choice to rule. The Democratic plan is more expensive but covers more people. The Republican plan is cheaper and doesn’t.

As it played out, the event didn’t look like one reasonable person aligned against a company of hooting morons. As Obama said during the lunch break: “The argument Republicans are making really isn’t that this is a government takeover of health care, but rather that we’re insuring the—or we’re regulating the insurance market too much. And that’s a legitimate philosophical disagreement.” Obama continued to affirm this view by saying things like this: “Neither of these proposals is radical. The question is which one works best.”

The president may very well think Republicans are crazy. But he didn’t say so, or even show it. For someone who may have been listening closely, the president’s command of detail may have been convincing. And in some cases, like the dispute over how premiums would be affected by the new system, he was right (but you had to read CNN, the AP, the Washington Post, or the Wall Street Journal later to know it). For most others who watched—and for those who didn’t—health care still seems like a pretty complicated issue that needs careful consideration. That’s exactly what Republicans are calling for, which is why the event worked with their pre-existing conditions.

The complexity demonstrated today helps Republicans because they’re arguing that Congress should address the issue incrementally. There are policy arguments against this approach, which Sen. Ron Wyden says actually “does less and costs more.” Yet that case wasn’t convincingly made today. Obama and Democrats have been making the case for comprehensive coverage for months, and they haven’t convinced anyone. In fact, people like the legislation less. Nothing today changed that dynamic.

So what was Obama up to with all of this reasonableness? Maybe he never thought Republicans would actually meet him halfway. Now when he supports the Senate as it proceeds to try to pass the bulk of health care reform by majority vote, he can say he did everything he could and that Republicans just weren’t willing to join in. The public is in a position to believe this. Polls have consistently showed that by an almost 2-to-1 margin, people give Obama credit over Republicans when asked who is trying harder to find bipartisan solutions.

“That’s what elections are for,” he said at the end when contemplating what might happen if Democrats proceed without Republican support. “We have honest disagreements about a vision for the country, and we’ll go ahead and test those out over the next several months till November.” Of course, for the president, there isn’t an election for more than two years. That scary fact didn’t come up today, but it may explain some of the differences between the president and congressional Democrats.

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