“People are angry,” Senator John McCain told Barack Obama at last Friday’s seven-hour health care summit. “We promised them change in Washington, and what we got was a process that you and I both said we would change.” Obama replied waspishly, “John, we’re not campaigning anymore. The election is over.”
This exchange showcased each man’s less attractive side: Obama’s penchant toward peevishness and McCain’s preoccupation with, well, having lost a presidential election. (It’s all right to brood, but it’d be nice if he didn’t feel the need to do it on live television.) It also underlined a question simmering throughout the much-touted event: Why was it occurring in the first place? Before the event, observers were skeptical that any progress on health care reform could be achieved, and they seem to have been right. During the summit, some differences on both sides were resolved and some areas of agreement were discovered, but by the end of the day, the battle lines hadn’t shifted an iota.
Even the president, who proposed the summit, didn’t seem especially happy; he sat with his chin in his hand most of the time, listening as Republicans refused to bargain. “Let’s start over,” said Senator Lamar Alexander, the Republicans’ opening speaker. Why, after all, should the GOP cooperate with the White House? Obamacare, as Conservatives dub it, is wildly unpopular—a fact which seems likely to lead to serious electoral gains for the Republicans this fall. Maybe Conservatives would have played ball with the president a year ago when the right was weak, despised, and almost hilariously out of touch with voters. But now it’s the White House that is struggling to connect, and the opposition, understandably, has little incentive to help.
All of this again leads to the question: Why did the president hold the summit at all? Commentators say that he shines in discussion-based situations where ambiguities can be sorted through and details analyzed. Maybe, but it’s unlikely that Obama’s performance at the summit swayed those television viewers who opposed his ideas in the first place. Where supporters of Obama and the health care bill saw the president’s intelligence light up the room (Jon Stewart cheered as Obama chided McCain), opponents saw him as boorish and snobby.
What the summit did give the president an opportunity to do, however, was attempt to make good on an element of the “change” that McCain accused him of not delivering: bipartisanship. A large portion of the Obama campaign was, in fact, devoted to talking about “changing the tone” in Washington after the Bush years, when both sides were frozen in ideological war. The underlying message from the Democrats at the summit seemed to be, “We’re willing to play ball, but the Republicans are obstructionist.” Their implicit message to voters, of course, is to blame the right for the fact that no progress is occurring.
To some extent, Liberals are correct: The right is standing firm against the current bill. The problem is that the Democrats aren’t really ready to play ball either because their view of reforming health care is fundamentally opposed to that of the Republicans. The right views health care reform as centered on a marketplace model, assisted by government subsidies but separated to a large extent from government control. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat notes, “However many small steps the Democratic legislation takes in [a conservative] direction, its biggest step goes miles the other way—toward a world where consumers are required to buy a particular kind of health insurance, insurers are required to sell it to them, and the cost of health care gets held down, ultimately, by price controls and bureaucratic supervision.” Both sides have legitimate points. Conservatives have a troubled history of over-reliance on unregulated marketplaces. Liberals, of course, haven’t always been spot-on in their optimism about big government.
No matter who is right, though, the two sides’ views aren’t reconcilable, at least at the moment. And it’s looking as if the president not only realizes this, but is going to try and push health care through despite Republican resistance. In the days after the summit, both Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden (two politicians well-briefed on the issue) hinted as much. Pushing the bill through Congress would not be unprecedented, especially not after the suspect maneuvers of Bush-era Republican legislators. However, it would certainly not be a bipartisan effort, which makes the health care summit, a supposed symbol of bipartisan engagement, seem hypocritical at best.