Frame Game

Trick or Entreat?

Was the bipartisan health care summit a fraud?

Democrats speak to the media after a health care reform summit

On Feb. 25, President Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sat down with congressional Republicans at a bipartisan summit on health care. The Democrats said they were seeking common ground. But now Democratic insiders are telling a different story: The summit was a ruse.

Obama opened the Feb. 25 meeting with these words:

What I’m hoping to accomplish today is for everybody to focus not just on where we differ, but focus on where we agree. … I’m going to start off by saying, here are some things we agree on. And then let’s talk about some areas where we disagree, and see if we can bridge those gaps. … I’d like to make sure that this discussion is actually a discussion and not just us trading talking points. I hope that this isn’t political theater where we’re just playing to the cameras and criticizing each other, but instead are actually trying to solve the problem. … And it strikes me that if we’ve got an open mind, if we’re listening to each other, if we’re not engaging in sort of the tit-for-tat and trying to score political points during the next several hours, that we might be able to make some progress.

Reid told the Republicans, “We’re ready to listen. I so appreciate the President getting us together. I want the American people to know that we need to work together, and I want to do everything that I can as a senator to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to get this done.” After the meeting, he declared, “I still believe that we can work together and am hopeful that we reach the bipartisan solution to health reform that we’ve always preferred.”

Pelosi echoed that sentiment. In a press conference after the summit, she applauded Obama for “striving to build consensus. He is listening for any common ground and extending an invitation for that. … I hope that something will come of this.”

A month later, health reform has passed without a single Republican vote, and Democratic aides are boasting about how their bosses used the Feb. 25 meeting to outsmart Republicans. “Behind the scenes, Obama had, in fact, already settled on a strategy,” Politico reports. “He would invite Republicans and Democrats to a summit, to give them one last chance at compromise, knowing they wouldn’t budge. And privately, he had decided that his favored approach was a comprehensive bill.”

The New York Times gives a similar account:

The event enabled Mr. Obama to claim the high ground on bipartisanship; after the [Scott] Brown victory, he needed to be seen as reaching out to the other side. He also wanted to force Republicans to put their ideas on the table, so that the public would see the debate as a choice between two ways to attack a pressing problem, not just a referendum on what Republicans derisively called “ObamaCare.”

The Wall Street Journal agrees:

Mr. Obama’s most effective move may have been calling for a bipartisan summit on health care, shifting the conversation from Democratic paralysis. Aides knew there was little chance they would reach a bipartisan agreement, but it forced Republicans to put ideas on the table, framing the choice as between two sets of ideas, rather than simply a referendum on one. “Democrats came out of that believing they could win the national debate,” said former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle.

So does the Washington Post:

Obama … immediately embraced the summit concept. It would be a chance to reset the effort, display his willingness to accept Republicans’ ideas and claim—albeit more for show than substance—that he was crafting a “new” bill that was not sullied by the deals struck in Congress. … Obama viewed the summit as a fresh chance to sell the public on his vision and highlight what he considered shortcomings in the Republican proposals.

Of these four accounts, only the Post reports any sincerity in the cross-party outreach, and that sincerity, partial at best, is Obama’s alone. As for Reid and Pelosi, the Times account suggests their participation was a diversion. At the meeting, Reid denied that Democrats were talking about using budget reconciliation to bypass a filibuster. “No one has talked about reconciliation,” he told Republicans. “We as leaders here, the Speaker and I, have not talked about doing reconciliation as the only way out of all this.” But the Times reports:

The meeting also gave the Democratic leadership the gift of time. While the spotlight shifted to Mr. Obama, Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Reid immersed themselves in figuring out their parliamentary options. … “The main thing was Pelosi sticking with it and doing the quiet work of bringing people back to saying, ‘We’re doing this,’ ” said John D. Podesta, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton. “It was almost illusionist, drawing your attention to something that isn’t important, so that you’re not watching what’s happening, which really is important.”

Together, the four reports paint a picture of deception: Obama never believed he could persuade Republicans. He had already decided the shape of the bill. He called the meeting to create an illusion of outreach, put Republicans on the spot, discredit their ideas, and embolden Democrats. The real action, contrary to Reid’s assurances, was happening offstage on Capitol Hill while the White House put on its show.

Is this story false? It’s hard to believe four news organizations would independently concoct it. But it’s also hard to understand why the reporters’ obvious sources—Democratic aides—freely told it. Don’t they see how bad it makes their bosses look? Aren’t they embarrassed?

I don’t think so. I think they’re proud of it. That’s why they’re telling the tale to one reporter after another. When you’ve been in politics too long, shrewdness becomes more important than earnestness. You’d rather get credit for suckering the other side than be accused of having been suckered by them. So you reduce the summit to a stunt. You exaggerate your boss’s gamesmanship and minimize his naiveté. Better to be thought a liar than a fool.

That’s too bad. One of Obama’s best qualities—a quality he shares with George W. Bush—is his overall sincerity. In Obama’s case, it’s coupled with a virtue Bush fatally lacked: humility. If you work for Obama or his party, perhaps you should follow his example. Find the courage to reach out and be thought a fool. You may be spurned or spat on. You may be called a faggot or a baby killer. But there’s no shame in that. At least, not for you.

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