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Obama's health-care summit: Chicken soup for the legislative soul

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By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, February 10, 2010

I've been trying, because I'd truly like to see health reform pass, to find something nice to say about President Obama's plans for a summit. Another summit, that is, nearly a year after the first one. Here's the best I could come up with: It can't hurt. Consider it Chicken Soup for the Legislative Soul.

When the president used his Super Bowl Sunday interview with CBS News' Katie Couric to launch this Hail Mary summit pass, he explained that "what I want to do is to look at the Republican ideas that are out there. . . . 'How do you guys want to lower costs? How do you guys intend to reform the insurance market so people with preexisting conditions, for example, can get health care? How do you want to make sure that the 30 million people who don't have health insurance can get it?' . . . And if we can go step by step through a series of these issues and arrive at some agreements, then procedurally, there's no reason why we can't do it a lot faster than the process took last year."

Sure, like in the movie "Dave," where the faux president and his accountant buddy order some chow, roll up their sleeves, and straighten out the budget books. Except this time, in half a day at Blair House with the opposition party pulling up a chair. On live television.

To take this at face value is to assume that (a) these conversations have not been occurring over the past year, which flies in the face of Democratic assertions that they have accepted numerous Republican ideas, or that (b) Republicans are correct that they've been shut out of the sausage-making, which ignores the endless weeks of negotiations among the Senate Finance Committee "Gang of Six."

But the president's proposal was not really meant to be taken at face value. In case the president's ducking of Couric's question about his willingness to "start at square one" wasn't clear enough, the White House came out to emphasize that, no, the president wasn't backing away from the measures that have already passed both houses of Congress. He plans to come to the table with a merged Democratic blueprint as his starting point. Republicans should feel free to chime in, though.

To call this Kabuki is to insult the Japanese art form. I am no fan of the House Republican leadership, but under these circumstances it's hard to fault Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio and Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia for suggesting that they might have better things to do than serve as Democratic stage props.

As a general matter, I'm a summit skeptic. Summit-as-educational-launching-pad is fine -- like the one the administration held last March -- but the time for this has passed and, in any event, the gabfest/summit requires follow-up to be worth the time. The administration made a big fuss about its fiscal responsibility summit last February and promptly dropped the ball.

Summit-as-Yalta-map-drawing-moment is promising, in theory. But it requires two sides willing to cut a deal and the private space -- sorry, C-SPAN -- to accomplish it. Think congressional leaders behind closed doors at Andrews Air Force Base. The president's mistake wasn't in failing to live up to his promise to televise health-care negotiations, it was making such a cynical promise to begin with. Cynical, not naive, because surely candidate Obama, even as he milked the applause line, didn't really imagine the cameras would be rolling.

So a summit aspiring to be more than show would require Obama to deliver his promised break from politics as usual. A cardinal rule of political negotiation is never to give something for nothing. But what if the president were to offer Republicans an inducement -- say tort reform? He has pointed to defensive medicine as one contributor to rising health costs. If "that's a real issue," as Obama told doctors last June, why not add it to the existing Democratic plans?

I can see them in the White House now, snickering. Would this kind of preemptive strike entice Republicans to cooperate? Not en masse, but enough such flexibility might pick off a few. It would show a Democratic Party willing to stand up to its own special interests for the public good, and a Republican Party -- assuming it balks -- unwilling to compromise.

If you're going to serve chicken soup, Mr. President, you might as well ladle some meat into the bowl.

marcusr@washpost.com


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