With the stage set and the script written and revised, the actors hit their marks on Thursday for the President’s first bipartisan Health Care Summit. After much anticipation both Republicans and Democrats sat through a more than six hour discussion of the labyrinthine reform proposals. But what sound does a policy debate make when (finally) everyone can hear it?
Artist: by The Whitefield Brothers
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BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Hey, did you watch the big Health Care Summit?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: More than a quarter of small businesses have reported a premium increase of 20 percent or more, just last year.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On the Democratic side, President Obama displayed virtuosic command of legal and technical arcana. For the GOP, Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander affably voiced what came off as principled Republican desire to start health care reform afresh. Could this extraordinary meeting deliver an oasis of comity and sanity in an ideologically riven Washington? Of course not. As another Republican remarked, the whole spectacle was a setup, because in the face of such carefully crafted presidential collegiality, the repetition of the standard GOP talking points could only appear as intransigence, or worse, as in this exchange between the President and Senator John Barrasso, a Wyoming medical doctor.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Would, would you be satisfied if every member of Congress just had catastrophic care? Do you think we'd be better health care purchasers? I mean, do you think – is that a change that we should make?
SENATOR JOHN BARRASSO: Yeah. I, I think – I think, actually, we would. We'd really focus on it. You'd have more, as they say, skin in the game.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Yeah.
SENATOR JOHN BARRASSO: People would -
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Because –
SENATOR JOHN BARRASSO: And especially if they had a, a savings account, a health savings account -
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Would you, would you –
SENATOR JOHN BARRASSO: - they could put their money into that.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Would you feel the same way if –
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SENATOR JOHN BARRASSO: And they’d be spending the money out of that.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Would you feel the same way if you were making 40,000 dollars?
BOB GARFIELD: Yes Sirree, Thursday’s televised bipartisan Health Care Summit was something else, which is to say not a summit at all, but something else - political theater staged by the White House to juxtapose presidential rigor with GOP posturing, on FOX, CNN, MSNBC and, of course, C-SPAN. Performed to boost support for using the reconciliation process to pass health care reform? Probably. A prescription for drama? Certainly.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I hope that this isn't political theater, where we're just playing to the cameras and criticizing each other, but instead are actually trying to solve the problem.
BOB GARFIELD: Hmm, physician, heal thyself! When Senator John McCain, Obama’s erstwhile presidential rival, accused the President of reneging on campaign promises, the President gave the cameras quite a show.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Let me just make this point, John, because we're not campaigning anymore. The election’s over.
SENATOR JOHN McCAIN: [LAUGHS] I – I – I'm reminded of that every day. [LAUGHS]
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: Ouch! McCain was flustered, but not as flustered as he seemed later, when he complained about a provision in the Democratic plan that he characterized as a naked Democratic payoff to Florida seniors, and the President agreed. Double ouch. How do you portray a president as an agent of socialism, when he sits there stubbornly being reasonable? And when they trotted out familiar talking points, instead of policy nitty-gritty, the President was ready for that, too.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I'd like to make sure that this discussion is actually a discussion and not just us trading talking points.
BOB GARFIELD: A talking point, about talking points, and thus did the party of “no” become the party of “oh no.” And because Republicans had demanded precisely such a televised summit, they were trapped. They knew it, the President knew it, and FOX News Channel’s Shepard Smith also knew it.
SHEPARD SMITH: I think they're outraged already -
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MAN: If he can’t answer –
SHEPARD SMITH: that we sit up there and waste all this time and talk about things just so that later the Democrats can say, we tried, as if you thought the Republicans were going to come around to this thing. Poppycock!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There was a slim chance that this six-hour forum could vent a little fresh air into a polluted political process, but instead we saw a duel. The GOP took most of the hits but was not unseated. Several million citizens did check it out on the White House website, but gradually the cable news channels drifted off in search of fresh cud to chew. Four-and-a-half hours in, FOX News had shifted to its studio programming, sometimes showing the Summit on screen, on mute, while CNN indulged in polls and hot air. MSNBC pulled out a mere two hours into the Summit to televise another Olympian confrontation, a hockey match between Sweden and Finland. In that contest, one team definitely won, and the other lost – or not. Both of those countries have universal health care.