President Obama’s long closing statement typified what we saw at the summit. As he mentioned earlier, he is the president, and so he got to speak longer than anyone else, both at the end and throughout the day. He wanted to highlight areas of apparent agreement, but the distance between his position and that of the Republicans is greater than he is suggesting. And at the end of the day, he did not really move from the place in which he began.
The summit was good theater for health-care wonks, but it did not change where anybody stands, and it will probably embolden Republicans to stand their ground in the weeks ahead. In all, a good day for open government and democracy, but not the game changer President Obama was hoping for.
“I suspect that if the Democrats and the administration were willing to start over and then adopt John Boehner’s bill we’d get a whole bunch of Republican votes.” Well, that’s true. “The concern colleagues…on the Democratic side have is after a year and a half, or five decades, they think starting over means not doing much or doing the proposal John Boehner and other Republicans find acceptable…”
“I’ve put on the table some things that I’ve said I’d work on.” Not sure what that means.
“I’d like the Republicans to do a little soul searching and see if there’s something that you’d embrace dealing with 30 million uninsured people and pre-existing conditions…” The non-Democratic proposals attempt to change the way health care is delivered, and in that way would deal with these matters in that fashion, as he knows.
“Politically speaking there may not be a reason for Republicans not to do anything…most Republican voters are opposed to this bill and might be opposed to any compromise we could craft.” God forbid they should be represented in this debate!
“But I thought it was worthwhile to make this effort….If we saw movement — signficant movement, not just gestures — you wouldn’t need to start over because everybody knows what the issues are…” This is exactly the point; the Democratic bills are the ones that matter, not any Republican proposals.
“We cannot have another year-long debate about this…Is there enough serious effort so that in a month’s time, or six weeks time, we can make a deal or we’ll have to go forward….That’s what elections are for.” And so, at the end, Obama threatens Republicans with passage of the bill through the “reconciliation” process that will only require 51 Senate votes rather than 60. Of course, this doesn’t take into account the fact that the House bill passed by only 5 votes and we don’t know yet whether Nancy Pelosi could command a majority for final passage for this bill when many prognosticators are looking at Democratic losses in the House of a minimum of 35-40 seats and a maximum of 75-80, more than Republicans lost after Watergate…
“Insuring those 30 million, that’s gonna take some money.” Imagine that Obama had acknowledged this last year. He couldn’t, of course, because he wanted to reserve soak-the-rich tax increases for other things.
The president says things that aren’t in the Republican plan are very popular. This is a very common liberal talking point; bloggers like Ezra Klein constantly point out that the “public option” is very popular. Well, if these ideas are popular, why is the Democratic plan garnering only 25 percent support? And if the “public option” is so popular, why is Obama’s chief talking point that there is no government takeover of health care and he shares so much common ground with Republicans?
The reason is that they are not popular, not really. Doubtless, if these various proposals could be magically imposed with no cost, no one would object and everybody would be happy. But the idea that you can give something for nothing is something the public does not believe in — and since most of these efforts involve insuring the uninsured, the already-insured have every reason to fear that the cost of such efforts is going to be imposed on them. The health-care bill began to falter due to the claim that Obama and friends could insure 30 million people and not increase costs.
In the end, though, what is being debated is not some putative Republican proposal. There are two bills, a Senate bill yet to pass and a House bill that has already passed. They were written by Democrats, and moved ahead by Democrats. Those bills are the issue, and they belong to Obama and his party, and they are loaded with things that frighten the public, and the only real question now is whether they will be jammed through.
John, I’d add (for now) a few points to your response to Jonathan Chait. Isn’t it interesting that Americans are siding, in overwhelming numbers, with “people who reply either on debunked claims at best and talk-radio-level slogans at worst”? And if Mr. Chait is proud to claim such articulate advocates as Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, John Dingell, Louise Slaughter, and all the rest, he is free to do so.
This was a dispiriting day for the president, for the Democrats, and for their health-care plans. I think ObamaCare will die; and it will die because liberals are badly losing the arguments on the merits. The sooner liberals like Chait accept that unpleasant truth — the sooner they re-engage with reality — the better off they will be.
The president begins to sum up, praising the “extraordinarily civil tone, and the fact that we’re only an hour late…” He promises to do so in 10 minutes.
Pete, I concur and think there are a few reasons for this. First, he usually doesn’t have a good response when someone rebuts him effectively. John McCain detailed the sleazy, backroom deals and said we should start over. Obama could only retort that the election was over. Not effective and very small of him. Reps. Ryan and Camp and Sen. Alexander made clear that, in fact, under his plan, premium costs would go up; Obama could only concede that this is because he’s forcing people to buy more insurance than they currently are.
And this pattern repeated itself during the day. Obama is not a man used to having other disagree with him, and he is not practiced in responding on the merits. That hurt him today. Second, he’s awful unpleasant at times. Call it condescending or belittling, or call it frustration. But this is not a sunny, magnanimous president. More Jimmy Carter than Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan. And finally, he really doesn’t have a good case. He wants to tax Americans making less than $250,000, something he said he wouldn’t do. He wants to spend when we get done with the budget tricks over a trillion dollars. He doesn’t want real tort reform. That’s a bad bill. He thought he could flimflam the public. But in six hours — and a year — the truth filters out.
Having been exposed to the president’s actions and rhetoric for close to six hours now, I better understand one of the most interesting facts of recent American politics: the more Mr. Obama speaks, the more unpopular his cause becomes. He is a man who talks a lot — and who has very little to show for it. I suspect today’s event won’t move the dial one bit for Democrats; if anything, it will help the Republican case. Barack Obama has the capacity to discredit many of the causes in whose behalf he speaks out. That’s unusual for an American president — and especially one who, we were told, would be the next FDR or even the next Lincoln.
Jonathan Chait writes:
John Podhoretz calls Obama “startlingly condescending at moments.” How can that be avoided when you’re trying to have a high-level discussion with people who reply either on debunked claims at best and talk radio-level slogans at worst?
Here’s how. By not being condescending. That’s how.
If there was a discrete moment that summed up the problem for Obama with this forum it was his exchange with Lamar Alexander, followed by the home runs by Reps. Dave Camp and Paul Ryan on the cost issue. On issues that can be clearly fact-checked and Obama isn’t willing to concede the obvious (his plan requires more expensive plans), the president simply can’t “win” the point. And the public generally gets the idea that he’s playing fast and loose with the facts.
Well, he is.
Another Republican doctor is speaking and reminding Obama how unpopular his plan is. Then he goes after Obama’s assumption that people with catastrophic plans get worse care or don’t get preventive care. Not true, says the doctor. In this case, the speakers, their background, and their demeanor have more to do with the argument (again, if anyone is still tuned in) than the substance. For once, Republicans have some appealing and informed speakers. Obama, never one to respect his opponents, plainly didn’t bank on this.
John McCain says we have never used this procedure on an issue of such magnitude. Obama goes into condescension mode, saying the public doesn’t care. But they do, and overwhelmingly oppose jamming this through. I don’t see how Obama “wins” this issue, and he quickly moves off of it to say tort reform really isn’t THAT important. But he cares about it, honest. So he’s interested in some pilot programs. We already have tort reform in several states, so this is what they call a “dodge.” At this point (maybe that point was at 10:00 a.m.), no one is convincing the other side of much of anything.
The reason I think the Democrats are pretending to minimize the differences is twofold. First, their own plan sounds less extreme if they are “close” to the Republicans. And second, it conceals the gross incompetence in managing this legislation. Well, if they’re close, then they have accomplished something, you see. But if they are really, really far apart, then they’ve wasted a whole year. Think Iran engagement.
John, I think Obama is suffering from three factors. First, the expectations for him, based on a good deal of media puffery, are that he should dominate these events. When he doesn’t and looks like a beleagured professor or a midlevel executive whose employees are refusing to get on the same page, the disappointment is greater than for a mere mortal politician.
Second, he has the Democrats on his side, and the Republicans have Paul Ryan, Dave Camp, Lamar Alexander, and John Boehner (who is now doing a fine job drilling down on costs, abortion subsidies, and a leaner health-care plan). And it isn’t just me. Republicans are frankly delighted by some of the media reaction. (David Gergen from earlier today on Obama: “He doesn’t have a strong Democratic team behind him.” Wolf Blizter: “It looks like the Republicans certainly showed up ready to play.”)
Third, the event is too long and there are too many popular, substantive points to be raised by the Republicans for this to be the “game changer” Obama needed. Whoever came up with this idea at the White House is no doubt squirming.
Democratic Rep. Xavier Becerra to Republican Rep. Paul Ryan: “You called into question the Congressional Budget Office! … We have to decide, do we agree with the Congressional Budget Office or not?”
Ryan: “I did not call into question the Congressional Budget Office!”
They actually have an interesting dispute about the way the CBO “scores” the effect of a health-care bill on the budget deficit long term. But it’s still funny.
UPDATE: Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley: “I see the CBO as God.”
Paul Ryan has just made three strong points:
- If there are going to be cuts to Medicare, the savings should go to shore up Medicare rather than to a new health-care entitlement.
- There are significant philosophical differences in approach; the Democrats want a government-run program, and the Republicans want to give people more freedom and more choices.
- To the extent that there are areas of agreement, we should start over and work on something from scratch.
The president replied by trying to put the Republicans on the defensive about Medicare Advantage, but Ryan did not get to respond for the GOP.
Biden is speaking.
And speaking. “Medicare. It’s an entitlement. It exists. It has to be dealt with. … I’d like us to talk about if we can what do we do about bending the cost curve … and uh …”
Obama, who’s sitting next to his vice president, looks a little bit like he wants to give him a zetz.
Finally, Mitch McConnell interrupts Biden and throws it to Rep. Paul Ryan, saving the nation.
Congresswoman Blackburn just did a fine job laying out the need to allow the purchase of insurance across state lines. She was clear and concise, and even finished her presentation before the president could cut her off.
President Obama was somewhat conciliatory in response, saying that he thinks we can bridge the differences on this issue, but — and it’s a big but — it would have to be via the Democrats’ national exchanges and in the context of imposing an individual mandate. In other words, he was conciliatory without conceding any policy ground.
Blackburn called him on it, saying that President Obama wants to let some insurers in, while she wants to let consumers out. The Blackburn approach is more consistent with expanding the market and increasing competition.
Unfortunately, this interesting exchange was followed by Joe Biden launching into a long disquisition on the deficit, introduced by those most dangerous words “I’ll be brief.”
I wrote earlier about differences in perception owing to ideology by citing Jonathan Chait of the New Republic. Now Yuval Levin, who has written about health care for COMMENTARY and is the editor of the wonderful National Affairs, offers his view at the Corner:
An important part of the Democrats’ problem is that Obama himself is their only star, and this format is not working for him. He certainly seems engaged and well informed (even given a few misstatements of fact, at least one of which John Kyl made very clear.) But he doesn’t seem like the President of the United States—more like a slightly cranky committee chairman or a patronizing professor who thinks that saying something is “a legitimate argument” is a way to avoid having an argument. He is diminished by the circumstances, he’s cranky and prickly when challenged, and he’s got no one to help him.
Yuval and I are in agreement about Obama’s professorial mien, which he calls “patronizing” and I called “condescending.” But I still think Obama comes across well on balance. And yet, thinking a little more about the peculiarity of Democrats talking so sweetly about how little difference there is between them and the Republicans, I am beginning to think Yuval has it right that “it is hard to see how the Democrats are doing themselves anything but harm with the health-care summit.”
This whole thing was a terrific blunder, probably, because with their own proposals’s support sinking and their own case for those proposals being made so haphazardly and disingenuously, Democrats are strengthening rather than weakening the Republican argument that the whole thing needs to be thrown out — because if Republicans disagree with them, and Republicans have more credibility on this right now, their judgment will more closely track with the public’s. And therefore, should Democrats decide to muscle their legislation through, they will all but ensure a voter uprising.
“And yet,” says Tom Harkin, “we still allow segregation in America today on the basis of your health.” Now that‘s what I call a non-sequitur.