Bipartisan Health Care Reform Summit Changes Health Care Reform Dynamic

In politics it’s often easy being in opposition to the party in control. Since your ability to pass laws is limited, at best, the goal shifts from legislating to point making. Minority parties tend to introduce bills to bolster their base and embarrass the majority. They get to rail against the inevitable hypocrisy that is a part of governing in a democracy while ignoring their own double standards back in the days when they were in charge.

In Washington this game is clear and obvious. The Democrats, control of both chambers of Congress and the White House, try to muscle through their priorities. The Republicans unanimously oppose them. In California the game plays out a bit more subtly. Democrats have large majorities in the legislature, but a Republican occupies the Governor’s office. This allows Democrats to shift between the role of the party in control and the opposition. The result: Democrats back a bill that would establish a $200 billion single payer program in the state, safe in the knowledge that it will never become law. If a Democrat becomes Governor next year single payer legislation will still be on the table, but it will be vetted and debated far more thoroughly than this year’s bill.

Now that Democrats have lost their filibuster-busting majority in the Senate, the dynamic in Washington changes substantially. Republicans have been unified in their opposition to the Democrats health care reform proposals. With 60 votes Democrats could ignore them. The debate was all within the Democratic caucus and took place between liberals and moderates. Reduced to 59 votes, Democrats face a new reality: Republicans matter.

President Barack Obama gets this. His appearance at the House GOP conference was a masterful stroke. The give-and-take can be viewed differently depending on the partisan glasses one wears, but the political picture painted at the event unarguably favored the White House. The mere presence of the Democratic president at a Republican meeting was a victory for the Administration. Most of his questioners read from prepared documents (one from a huge book). President Obama answers were note-free. This made it seem like the Republicans had mapped out how to trap or embarrass the President while President Obama was there to simply talk.

Worse, the Republicans could not help but couch their questions in loaded, political terms. (“When will you stop being a socialist” kind of thing). President Obama not only called them on this behavior, but focused his remarks on substance and the need for bipartisanship. Because the questions were politically laden, even when the President responded in kind he won – self-defense is a valid excuse in the eyes of most non-partisans. The best evidence the President benefitted from attending the event: Republican leaders admit, off the record, that televising the question and answer session was a mistake.

Now President Obama is taking the dialogue to a new level and Republicans are in danger of being cornered again. Think of it as the “Be Careful What You Wish For Gambit.” Republicans have been accurately complaining they’ve been excluded from negotiations concerning health care reform. That’s about to change.

On Sunday President Obama announced he would convene a bipartisan health care reform summit with legislative leaders to be televised live. The New York Times quotes President Obama as stating “I want to come back and have a large meeting, Republicans and Democrats, to go through systematically all the best ideas that are out there and move it forward.” The paper goes on to say that “Mr. Obama challenged Republicans to attend the meeting with their plans for lowering the cost of health insurance and expanding coverage to more than 30 million uninsured Americans.”

This move has the potential to actually move health care reform forward. Democrats could be forced to defend some of their more tenuous proposals. Republicans might have to explain how their reforms stack up against the Democrats’ ideas. Republicans could use the opportunity to pin Democrats down on some of their favorite ideas (e.g., medical malpractice reform) while Democrats could question their GOP counterparts on how requiring carriers to accept all applicants regardless of pre-existing conditions can work without requiring all Americans to obtain coverage. In other words, there’s an opportunity for a meaningful, substantive debate that would educate the public while identifying common ground among the Congressional combatants.

And then there’s the political theater of it all. If Democratic or Republican participants use the opportunity to score political points rather than solve problems it will be apparent for the world – and their constituents to see. You can bet that President Obama will avoid this mistake. Instead this is an opportunity for him to present himself to voters – especially independent, moderate voters – as a thoughtful, serious leader focused on finding solutions to serious problems. There’s no more politically potent place for a politician to stand than above politics.

Of course, there’s no guarantee this summit will take place. Republicans are insisting that the legislation passed by the House and Senate be shelved before they participate. While I appreciate their concern about giving credence to the Democratic plan, the reality is that any discussions need a starting point. And the Democratic legislation is what’s before Congress. Taking into account that many of the provisions of the bills are non-controversial, starting with the current bills makes sense from a practical standpoint. Further, politically it’s to the Republicans advantage to force Democrats to defend their proposals. Especially given rifts within the Democratic party within and between each chamber, defending the existing bills would put Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in an extremely awkward position.

However, instead of turning the President’s summit idea into an advantage, Republicans seem to be deploying the tactics that made them a minority party in the first place. Consider Republican Representative Darrell Issa. According to the Associated Press he said that the first question Republicans should ask President Obama is “Did you lie about moving forward on malpractice reform?” Yes, this feistiness is red meat to the Republican base, but elections are won among moderates – and moderates are tired of politics-as-usual. Representative Issa could have made the same point by suggesting the first question be “How can the GOP help President Obama keep his promise to move forward on malpractice reform?” That’s the approach most independent voters are hoping to see. (Granted, some independents are well to the right or left of the mainstream, but the ones that decide elections tend to be moderates.)

President Obama’s call for a bi-partisan health care summit is subtle and significant.  At best it leads to passage of health care reform albeit at the political price of rewarding Republicans for being partners in reform. At worst the summit proves no health care reform is possible, but in the process shows that it is Republicans who are unwilling to take substantive action.

For President Obama this is a win-win situation. For Republican it is a dangerous one. If they rise above politics it could cement their standing as the alternative to the current Congress.  That’s their win. If they follow Representative Issa’s example, however, they’ll make their base happy, but undermine the electoral momentum they’ve gained in the past year. That would be their loss.