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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Chess Game Behind Health Care Summit

In his article, “GOP Wary of Pitfalls in Obama’s Health Care Summit,” AP’s Charles Babbington provides insights into the strategic implications of President Obama’s bipartisan health care summit on Feb. 25th. From the lede:

Even as Republicans publicly welcome President Barack Obama’s call for a bipartisan confab on health care, some privately worry that he might be laying a trap to portray their ideas as flimsy. If so, a shaky showing by GOP leaders could possibly embolden congressional Democrats to make a final, aggressive push to overhaul the nation’s health care system, with or without any Republican votes.

“This is a clever tactic by the president to try to put the Republicans on the defensive,” explains John Feehery, a GOP consultant and former congressional aide, who also cites “a vast ideological gulf” between Dems and the GOP on health care.
Babbington reports that GOP leader John Boehner of Ohio and GOP Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia have asked the President to rule out using budget reconciliation to enact any of the Democratic plan’s health care provisions. The white house has responded that the President will not rule it out, but is sincere about hearing Republican ideas for improving the health care bill. Further, the white house is “adamant about passing comprehensive reform similar to the bills passed by the House and the Senate.”
The President adds:

What I want to do is to look at the Republican ideas that are out there. And I want to be very specific. How do you guys want to lower costs? How do you guys intend to reform the insurance markets so people with preexisting conditions, for example, can get health care? How do you want to make sure that the 30 million people who don’t have health insurance can get it?”

Republicans are understandably nervous about the proposed health care summit, partly because of “nonpartisan estimates that the House Republican bill would cover 3 million uninsured people while the Democratic version would cover 36 million.” Republican proposals are very thin on substance and they fear, with good reason, that their policy proposals are a tough sell.
They also fear the summit format, and more particularly the President’s media skills and command of the issues, which were on widely-televised display at the House GOPs’ retreat in Baltimore last week.
Their overal strategy is to deflect public scrutiny of the substance of their policy, and try to keep the media focused on message du jour cliches about “socialism,” “government take-overs” and higher taxes. a message which will be parroted ad nauseum by Fox and other GOP media lapdogs, and one they hope to spread to the more gullible segments of the MSM. They are very good at media manipulation and, if the debate drags on, expect a flood of corporate-funded, anti-reform TV ads in the months ahead.
Stalling is also a key part of the GOP strategy. The public wants the health care reform legislation resolved so congress can move on to jobs. The longer the GOP can prevent Democrats from passing a good reform bill, the better for their prospects to make Democrats look weak in November. As Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) puts it in Babbington’s article, “I think the greatest risk for Democrats is passing nothing.” Others worry that the second-greatest risk is passing something too late to do much political good in 2010.
Some progressive Democrats are skeptical about the Summit idea. As McJoan explains at Daily Kos,

While Obama is stressing that he won’t start over from scratch, he’s leaving room for “scaling back the scope of the legislation in hopes of drawing more support for a health care plan.” A vain hope, if indeed he’s really thinking there’s Republican support out there to be had…The experience of the past year should be enough to convince anyone other than David Broder that Republicans would actually play a part in passing any kind of reform.
Perhaps this nothing more than an elaborate set-up to expose the depth of Republican obstructionism and, as Greg Sargent speculates lay the groundwork for passing the bill through reconciliation by providing them cover. But a more straightforward, and quicker, path would certainly be providing the leadership the Senate seems to be craving and help push the reconciliation fix through.

McJoan notes in a subsequent post,

Republican leadership has spoken. Eric Cantor has now joined Boehner and McConnell to say that they’re not budging. And yet, in an interview with HuffPo’s Sam Stein, HHS Secretary Sebelius says that “President Obama is willing to ‘add various elements’ to health care legislation suggested by Republican lawmakers during an upcoming bipartisan meeting on the topic.” Various Republican elements have already been added to the bill, in the committee processes. Those concessions even included a ridiculous abstinence-only sex ed provision from Hatch. Did Hatch then vote for the Senate bill? No. Making further concessions to the Republicans, now that GOP leadership has issued the marching order, is not going to garner any more GOP votes…That expectation, and any possible concessions to Republicans resulting from that expectation, needs to be taken right off the table.

Still, the Summit may be helpful for setting the stage for deployment of the budget reconciliation strategy for key provisions of the legislation. Feb 25 seems a little late, and McJoan’s points about the dim prospects for any form of bipartisanship make sense. But, read as a stage-setting bipartisan gesture, rather than a project designed to win any Republican votes in congress, the short (half-day) Summit has merit.
Dems are rightly focused on the November elections, which will likely be critical for the Democratic agenda. In terms of longer-range strategy, however, Connolly adds “There are a lot of things the public may not support in a given moment, but later on, when things have quieted down, they may think of highly” — always a consideration for the party of reform.

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