Health diplomacy

Sunday, January 24, 2010

WITH HIS health-care reform in mortal danger, President Obama should try treating the Senate Republicans the way he treats the ruling mullahs of Iran. And before you -- or Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) -- take offense, give us a chance to explain.

For the past year, Mr. Obama has offered Iran a policy of strenuous diplomatic engagement. When Iran rebuffed his overtures, he tried again. When it busted through his end-of-year deadline with no positive response, Mr. Obama still kept trying. He has been patient for two reasons. He hopes that diplomacy will work, since every other option is far less appealing. And if diplomacy fails, he wants the rest of the world to see unmistakably that Iran, and not the United States, was to blame.

You can see where we're heading here. Health reform is in trouble in large part because it failed to attract a single Republican vote in the Senate. There's debate about why that is so. Democrats say that they tried but that Republicans wanted health care to be, as Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) infamously said, Mr. Obama's "Waterloo." They preferred the political advantage of paralysis to compromise and accomplishment. Republicans say that the Democrats wanted a bipartisan gloss on a Democratic bill, and that -- knowing he had an unshakable 60-vote majority in the Senate -- Mr. Obama didn't bargain in a serious way.

With the election to the Senate of Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Mr. Obama no longer has that majority. He told ABC News on Wednesday that Washington should "move quickly to coalesce around those elements of the package that people agree on." Then why not call in Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who has said the Republicans favor reform, but step by step; Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), who earlier co-sponsored, with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a sensible and far-reaching plan; and Republican Sens. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), Charles E. Grassley (Iowa) and Mike Enzi (Wyo.), who spent months last year negotiating with three Democratic counterparts in search of a bipartisan compromise? For that matter, why not invite Mr. McConnell and see if there really are elements of health reform they could agree on?

Such an engagement policy would have, in this case, not two but three potential benefits. The first is political: If Mr. Obama goes the extra mile with Republicans, as he has with Iran, and they still refuse to compromise, Americans will understand whom to blame. Second, any change of this magnitude will be more likely to succeed if it enjoys bipartisan support.

Most important: Outreach might produce better policy. Republican ideas on competition, tort reform, freedom for state experimentation and other issues could advance Mr. Obama's goals of increased access and decreased costs. Republicans claim to be as committed as he to the three priorities he cited Wednesday: insurance reform, cost control and help for small business.

We recognize that, having drawn first blood with Mr. DeMint's strategy, Republicans in Congress may not be inclined to compromise. But if they are reading the Massachusetts results as vindicating a strategy of obstruction, they are as deluded as liberals who believe Mr. Obama's only problem was not to push harder to the left. Most voters would like to see compromise, pragmatism and results. Why not give those a try, for a change?

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