As political theater goes, Thursday’s widely anticipated healthcare summit between President Obama and Democratic and Republican legislators was one of the more precisely scripted shows you will ever see, and on that score it was as successfully executed as a Broadway play on opening night.
Yet, on the question of whether the event will actually win new votes to enacting broad healthcare reform? The answer is a decisive “no.”
Despite being Democrats’ No. 1 priority since retaking control of the federal government last year, Congress has been unable to pass a healthcare reform package. A large share of the blame falls on Mr. Obama’s shoulders, as he sat on the sidelines for months and allowed Congress to endlessly dither and squabble without making definitive progress. When passage finally seemed at hand, the stunning election of Sen. Scott Brown last month assured that Democrats did not have the votes to clear a final bill in the Senate and set back the process, perhaps irreparably.
The healthcare summit arrived as the president’s response to the new political reality brought on by Mr. Brown’s election, and it is a perfect demonstration both of the president’s leadership style and why that style of governing is poorly equipped to achieve the policy end result that the president and congressional Democrats so desperately desire.
As his performance Thursday shows, Obama seems to believe that using his soothing, logical, and ceaselessly precise manner on members of Congress in negotiations and the heavy application of his immense rhetorical talents on the public will generate sufficient pressure and political will to move a final healthcare bill to his desk.
Obama and the Democrats may very well have won converts in the public with the summit. The president was good in advancing his positions and came off very well, but that doesn’t mean that the summit did anything to advance the passage of healthcare.
The fact is that the debate over healthcare reform in Congress has been going on for nearly a year now and all sides are deeply dug in. Before Thursday,
Republicans in Congress were already nearly universally opposed to the Democrats’ legislation. And with the majority party flailing and the retaking of Congress looking increasingly possible, politically, the GOP has no reason to help Democrats enact a bill that is patently unacceptable to many in the Republican caucus.
Because the Democrats have complete ownership of the healthcare issue and any failures that may come of it will be laid at their feet, passage will depend on the votes in their caucuses.
As Frank Annunzio, a shrewd former Democratic member of Congress from Chicago – reflecting on how Congress really works – once observed: “All the matters here is the votes. Everything else is [baloney].”
Right now, Obama and the Democrats should be concerning themselves solely with cobbling together bare majorities in both houses to achieve final passage.
The summit, no matter how perfectly executed and aesthetically pleasing, did little by itself to advance that objective.
The roster of the summit itself is telling of this point. Including the compulsory attendance of congressional leaders and committee chairs and ranking members who are all strong party faithful, of the other members attending, I counted zero of the 39 Democratic members who opposed the initial House bill and one supporter of the Stupak Amendment, which imposed antiabortion provisions on the House bill – a provision that is now absent from present consideration.
It is these members, many of them “blue dog” and conservative Democrats, who will determine the fate of the healthcare in the House, not perpetually skeptical Republicans, and the president should be seeking ways to directly get their votes.
Of course, Senate Democrats may pass a reform package through budget reconciliation, a process that would require just a bare majority, but such a procedure is limited in precisely what it could codify and even if done, it would still be up to the House to pass the bill, too. Those House votes are not clearly locked in right now, and the president should work with the congressional leadership to hammer down those votes one by one. Unfortunately, the president does not seem dedicated to that type of effort.
That much was clear when Obama made no discernible attempts to try to push the previously Senate-passed healthcare bill through the House soon after
Brown’s victory, at the time the best option for Democrats to achieve wide reform. For healthcare to pass, a higher level of forceful engagement by the president would be helpful to corralling passable majorities, and despite the president’s focused aggression at the summit, it was not necessarily focused at the right people, the ones whose votes will control the final outcome.
Perhaps Obama calculated that Thursday’s summit would provide cover to congressional Democrats nervous about their reelection prospects. If so, that is smart, but that consideration will only matter if Obama takes the results of the summit in concert with robust work behind the scenes to win member votes.
A scripted event alone won’t do the job.
Mark Greenbaum is an attorney and freelance writer in Washington.