Commentary Magazine


No Waste of Time

Both before and after the health-care summit there were those on the Left and on the Right who declared it to be a “waste of time.” On a superficial level this might be the case. After all, there was no agreement reached and no breakthrough moment (unless we are talking about the emergence of Rep. Paul Ryan as an impressive new conservative figure). But when  one considers what the summit revealed, the “waste of time” complainers — I think — have it quite wrong, and the complaint reveals much about the complainers.

On the Left many have lost patience with discussion and with democracy itself. The problem, they have convinced themselves, is that Obama isn’t rude and bullying enough. No, really. Dana Milbank encapsulates the thinking:

But now, the world’s most powerful man too often plays the 98-pound weakling; he gets sand kicked in his face and responds with moot-court zingers. That’s what Mr. Cool did at the White House health-care summit on Thursday. For seven hours, he racked up debating points as he parried Republican attacks without so much as raising his voice, but the performance didn’t exactly intimidate his foes.

Actually he tried to bully the Republicans, hog the time, put down John McCain, and glare at Ryan — but he simply failed to out- debate and outshine his opponents, whose demeanor and fluidity trumped his own.

The Left doesn’t want debate in the Senate either. They want this muscled through by reconciliation. The time for debate is over, they keep saying, because — of course — they have lost the debate.

On the Right many didn’t want the summit and some grouched about it afterward. They seem to be in perpetual fear that Obama might actually make some headway with the public, or that the Republicans might reveal themselves to be what their critics accuse them of being — dull-witted, ill-informed, and unattractive. But the Republicans proved to be none of those things and Obama had a surly outing.

The aversion to making a detailed defense in a less than ideal setting is an unfortunate inclination of some on the Right. Listen, they are in the minority; so no setting other than a national convention in which they micromanage everything will be ideal. Politics requires that you show up to do battle in whatever setting you find yourself, so as to convince the persuadable, rally your side, and knock your opponents on their heels.

The “waste of time” set on the Right forget the necessity of explaining again and again the “why” behind conservative principles and values. Following the gubernatorial campaign of Bob McDonnell, his chairman Ed Gillespie explained to me why McDonnell was such an effective candidate:

We say we are for lower taxes. Vote for us, damn it! Figure it out! Bob explains he is for lower taxes because he wants to encourage more businesses and jobs. He is for charter schools because it makes all schools better. He is for offshore drilling because it can help plug the revenue hole and generate high-paying jobs. He spent a lot of time talking to independent voters about what is in it for them.

Conservatives make the mistake of assuming that the generally Center-Right country doesn’t need to be told why the liberal approach (be it on health care or other issues) is flawed; they wrongly assume that everyone understands that when the government federalizes health care, regulates and taxes insurance and the rest, bad things will result. The health-care summit was a reminder of the importance of explaining one’s positions in sober, concrete terms to the American people.

The health-care summit didn’t turn out to be a waste of time. The country learned a lot about its president (mostly not favorable), about what’s wrong with ObamaCare, about the Republicans (mostly favorable), and about the Democratic congressional leadership  (mostly awful to the point of being cringe-inducing). Compared to most of what politicians do, you would be hard pressed to find a better use of their time.