Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Health Care Summit: Conciliatory rhetoric as ruthless strategy

By now most of us know that the invitation (pdf) has gone out for Democrats and Republicans to join President Obama at a health care reform conference on February 25th. While many in the media and the blogs are caught up in seeing this as some type of effort towards bipartisanship, some are seeing the strategy on a bit deeper level.

To set the stage, from the invitation we know that the White House has invited the leadership of both the House and Senate, chairs of the key healthcare reform committees, and asked each party to invite 4 additional members. We also know that the agenda will be focused on four topics: insurance reforms, cost containment, expanding coverage, and the impact heath reform legislation will have on deficit reduction.

But perhaps the biggest surprise of all from the invitation was the statement that prior to February 25th, the White House will post online the text of a proposed health insurance reform package. The Republicans have been asked to do the same.

One of those who recognizes the strategy at work here is Jonathan Chait, who has a great article up about "The Obama Method." In it, he quotes from an article written by Mark Schmitt during the primaries.

One way to deal with that kind of bad-faith opposition is to draw the person in, treat them as if they were operating in good faith, and draw them into a conversation about how they actually would solve the problem. If they have nothing, it shows. And that's not a tactic of bipartisan Washington idealists -- it's a hard-nosed tactic of community organizers, who are acutely aware of power and conflict. It's how you deal with people with intractable demands -- put ‘em on a committee.


Chait picks it up from there.

Last year I wrote a column making a similar point. Obama uses a similar approach toward Republicans as foreign enemies like the Iranian regime: take them up on their claim to some shared goal (nuclear disarmament, health care reform), elide their preferred red herrings, engage them seriously, and then expose their disingenuousness:

This apparent paradox is one reason Obama's political identity has eluded easy definition. On the one hand, you have a disciple of the radical community organizer Saul Alinsky turned ruthless Chicago politician. On the other hand, there is the conciliatory post-partisan idealist. The mistake here is in thinking of these two notions as opposing poles. In reality it's all the same thing. Obama's defining political trait is the belief that conciliatory rhetoric is a ruthless strategy.


Jonathan Cohn understands just why this conciliatory rhetoric is so ruthless.

Republicans want to make this event--and, indeed, this whole debate--a referendum on the Democratic health care reform plan. Obama wants to make this a referendum on what to do about the nation’s health care problems, with each party putting forward its ideas. And it looks to me like Obama will get his way.

If the Republicans don’t post a plan, everybody will see that the GOP isn't serious about health care reform. If the Republicans do post a plan, they'll have to defend it. That might look even worse, given how unpromising their ideas are, although I realize that's a matter of opinion.


And Ezra Klein weighs in with this.

The Republican response to this is that they're demanding that the House and Senate refrain from coming up with any unified plan before the summit, which is sort of an odd argument. In essence, the Republican position is that a free and frank exchange of ideas sounds great as long as the Democrats don't bring their ideas.

The fact that Republicans are making bizarre requests to change the rules of the summit rather than just ignoring the gambit altogether suggests they've not figured out how to deal with the event. This is the first time since the Massachusetts election, in fact, that's it's been them, rather than the Democrats, who've seemed confused.


If you'd like a little humor to accompany that confusion, check out this hilarious clip from Jon Stewart about the summit. And here's a cartoon that pretty well sums it up.

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But the White House strategy isn't just impacting the Republicans. As we first learned from an article in The Hill over the weekend, the impasse between the Democrats in the House and the Senate might be in the process of being breached as well in order to prepare for the summit. In discussing the submission of a proposal online prior to the event, this is what the article says.

Asked whether this indicated that Obama wants Democratic congressional leaders to wrap up their discussions about a House-Senate compromise package before the meeting, a White House official wrote: "We’ll have more details on this moving forward. Folks are continuing to work to bridge the differences in the House and [Senate] bills and we’ll have online a detailed and comprehensive proposal."


Ezra Klein backs up the idea that the reform package to be posted online prior to the summit will be the negotiated agreement between the House and the Senate.

That bit about posting a proposed health insurance reform package is important. I spoke to the White House over the weekend and they indicated that the president's package will not be a new White House plan, but a compromise between the House and Senate bills. That is to say, the White House expects that the House and Senate will have a compromise plan by February 25th.


Its likely that this compromised plan will be the one that was close to being finalized prior to the MA election. As we all know, there seems to have been a bit of an impasse about getting this plan moving since then. But here's how Cohn describes what he sees happening now. Referring to the publication of a plan online, he says.

That passage seems to suggest one of the following is true:

1) House and Senate leadership have nearly finished negotiating a new compromise version of their legislation. The text the administration plans to post will reflect that compromise.

2) House and Senate leadership are still struggling to come to an agreement, if not over what to pass then in what sequence to pass it. The administration hopes this promise will force them to wrap things up.<...>

If it's (1), the House and Senate have finally worked out most of their differences. If it's (2), President Obama is starting to give them the shove they need.


What we see here is the opening salvo of what this strategy has already accomplished just in the planning...the Republicans in disarray and the Democrats coming together. I'd say this is marvelous news for health care reform!!!!!

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