The White House Health Care Summit didn’t quite live up to expectations. Obama didn’t end up laying down the law—and Republicans were far from cooperative. The eight-hour bull session moved through the four key areas: insurance regulations, deficit reduction, cost containment and expanded coverage. The 30-some lawmakers and White House staff in attendance chewed over these topics and more—but in some ways, the specifics of policy didn’t matter. What does matter is which factions looked like they came out with some momentum for their cause. In the spirit of this political theater, here is a subjective take on the winners and losers of the great health care summit of 2010.
The convener had the highest stakes of all. The president, however, proved a nimble moderator of a large and unwieldy debate. He deftly parried Republican attacks, some rhetorical (“We need a clean sheet of paper”) some prop-based (Rep. Eric Cantor’s stack of binders). He also finally laid the track for his personal desires: “Baby steps don’t get you where people need to go.” In one classic exchange, Obama schooled Republican Rep. John Barrasso. Not only did Barrasso look elitist for insisting that people pay for their own health care, he gave Obama the chance to do what he does best: explain why we can’t wait. “We shouldn't pretend these people don't need help,” he said, with a bite in his voice.
The earliest fireworks at this tense summit came between the president and his former opponent for the White House. First McCain cut off the president when he tried to get McCain to wrap up his comments on "the special deals for the special interests." It wasn't long before Obama sharply reminded him: "The election's over." McCain shot back: "I'm reminded of that every day." Perhaps it's because he is facing a primary challenge from his right flank in Arizona, but the once bipartisan McCain appeared crotchety-not a good look for the runner-up.
This controversial parliamentary maneuver used 50+1 Senate votes to pass the Bush 43 tax cuts, Bill Clinton's welfare reform, expand Medicaid, and enact a host of other issues. In fact, it's been used 21 times since 1981. And, despite Republican calls to "start over," the president kept the door open to this potentially-decisive maneuver all day.
Though the White House has been conspicuously absent from the debate on whether to offer a cheaper, government-administered plan alongside private options, a letter written by Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo), and signed by 22 other senators asked Obama to reconsider: "A strong public option can be the centerpiece of an even better package of cost saving measures," he wrote. "Including a strong public option is one of the best, most fiscally responsible ways to reform our health insurance system." At the summit, however, there was little mention of this-and indeed, diehard public option supporters like Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Ron Wyden participated-but kept mum on the only real chance to give predatory insurers a run for their money.
The news station funded by all cable television subscribers is associated with coverage of bone-dry procedural votes in Congress. But the channel has received an unprecedented amount of attention of late. President Obama's well-publicized thrashing of House Republicans at their retreat set the tone. Add to that the president's campaign promise to "have the negotiations televised on CSPAN," and the channel, always a bridesmaid to flashy networks like Fox or MSNBC, got to see its excellent, up-to-the-minute coverage at Blair House.
The Secretary of State has done an admirable job of vaulting smart power diplomacy into prominence across the world. But she's been uniquely hamstrung on her once-signature issue of health care. As Obama presided over the conversation she helped start in 1994, she is leaving the country this weekend for Uruguay, Chile, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. The best she could do was to tell a House subcommittee that Congressional gridlock puts US foreign policy at risk. The cause of her domestic political life is proceeding without her.
The summit as a whole was perhaps a good demonstration of why the airing of debate on CSPAN wasn’t a great idea. Despite Obama’s admonishments, there was a decidedly staged feel to the eight-hour talks—and few concrete results. Yet there were some moments of real clarity. The president’s closing remarks acknowledged that “in order to help the 30 million [uninsured], that’s going to cost some money,” yet pushed past Republican dissent based on the length of the bill. "I did not propose something complicated just for the sake of being complicated,” he said.
The gaffe-prone Republican National Committee chair has struck again: During an MSNBC appearance in advance of the health care summit, Steele declared: "This whole dog-and-pony show that we're about to witness today is something that should have taken place a year ago." He was trying to make a point about transparency-but, in fact, the president did hold a meeting on health care, featuring major stakeholders, congresspeople and the industry, almost exactly a year ago. Foot, meet mouth.
They may not always be wittiest debaters, but by offering seemingly sincere outreach to Republicans—and calling them out for being disingenuous—Democrats carried the day. Standouts include Rep. Henry Waxman, the committee chair whose state experienced recent, eye-popping premium hikes, and Sen. Dick Durbin from Illinois, who calmly explained why insurers must cover those with pre-existing conditions, and Rep. Louise Slaughter, who made the most logical and compelling moral case for change now. In fact, the Democrats consistently played the party of common sense to the party of “no.” As Rep. Charlie Rangel put it in one: “Does someone who's sick care about the size of the bill?”