Empathy and optics



The health care reform "summit," an intermittently enlightening seven-hour semi-wonkfest, was basically an advertisement for Washington gridlock. Its essence can best be summarized in a smattering of quotes.

First, President Obama: "The question that I'm going to ask myself and I ask of all of you is, is there enough serious effort that in a month's time or a few weeks' time or six weeks' time we could actually resolve something? And if we can't, then I think we've got to go ahead and make some decisions..."

Translating Obama: If Republicans persist with their intransigence (which, of course, they will), he and the congressional Democrats will push ahead on their own to enact health reform (or try, anyway), using the same Senate parliamentary tactics that Republicans have used so often during the past 30 years (as I explained here yesterday).

By staging this day-long televised sitdown, Obama wanted to show the American people, who are fans of bipartisanship, that he too would prefer to proceed on a bipartisan basis - but that it's virtually impossible to do business with a brick wall.

Here was House Republican whip Eric Cantor, encapsulating the GOP 'tude in a single sentence: "All of us share the concerns when people are allegedly wronged in our health care system."

You've gotta love that word "allegedly."

Translating Cantor: Let's be skeptical about these tales of woe. OK, these everyday folks have their side of the story - but the insurance companies have their side of the story, too.

Yesterday, the GOP's friends on Fox News were predictably more open in their mockery. Laura Ingraham said of the Democrats, "I like the dueling sob stories...The whole thing was ridiculous." (Let the record show, however, that Republicans occasionally offer their own "sob stories." Last November, during the House health care debate, Arizona congressman John Shadegg brought a seven-month baby to the floor. Speaking in baby talk, Shadegg said: "Maddie believes in freedom, Maddie likes America because we have freedom here. She asked to come here today to say she doesn't want the government to take over health care. Maddie knows that if this bill passes her mom's health care goes away and won't be around in five years." Maddie, who was more interested in her plastic key ring, did not comment on whether she believes in freedom.)

Elsewhere yesterday on the "sob story" front, Democratic senator Patty Murray talked about a constituent, a single mother of three who was fired after missing work due to illness. The mother lost her health insurance, couldn't afford to see a doctor, and subsequently died. Murray's recounting of the tragedy prompted this swift empathetic response from Republican senator Tom Coburn (an obstetrician, no less): "The key goal is to reconnect purchase and payment so we become good purchasers."

Anyway, just in case Cantor and Coburn didn't sufficiently suggest a certain insensitivity to the pain of everyday folks, Wyoming Senator John Barrasso brought the 'tude home with an elitist flourish: "I do believe we have the best health care system in the world. That's why the premier of one of the Canadian provinces came here just last week to have his heart operated on."

Well, there you have it. According to this Republican, our health care system is the best because a Canadian premier can fly down here and use it.

In response, Obama had to remind Barrasso that everyday folks, particularly the uninsured, don't necessarily have the same breadth of options as a Canadian premier: "The vast majority of these 27 million people or 30 million (uninsured) people that we're talking about, they work every day. Some of them work two jobs....Listen to the folks that we get letters from - because the truth of the matter, John, is they're not premiers of anyplace, they're not sultans from wherever. They don't fly into Mayo and suddenly decide they're going to spend a couple million dollars on the absolute, best health care. They're folks who are left out."

Over the span of seven hours, Obama didn't need any teleprompter, nor did he need to read seventh-grade slogans off his hand, in order to make his case. But in the end, I still question whether this extended expose of Republican intransigence and insensitivity will rebound to his political benefit.

Its real purpose was to stiffen the spines of moderate congressional Democrats who are terrified that voting Yes on a final health reform package will doom them in November (just as in 1994, when many Democrats who had earlier voted Yes on Bill Clinton's deficit-closing, tax-raising budget package were swept from office). But there are few indicators at this point that the health reform fence-sitters are willing to take one more tough one for the team.

And consider the "optics" of this event. The average news consumer heard only the soundbites, and learned that the participants slogged along for seven hours without making any progress. That will merely reinforce the perception, held by many Americans, that Obama and the Democrats can't seem to get things done. Gridlock rarely benefits the incumbent party in an election year. The Republicans appear to have decided that saying No is the same as sitting pretty, and, given the gut frustrations of '10 swing voters, they may well be proved right.