The elephant at the health-care summit

By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Monday, February 22, 2010; A15

This week, particularly the health-care summit President Obama has called for Thursday, will determine the shape of American politics for the next three years.

The issue is whether the summit proves to be the turning point in a political year that is moving decisively in the Republicans' direction. If the summit fails to shake things up and does not lead to the passage of a comprehensive health-care bill, Democrats and Obama are in for a miserable time for the rest of his term.

Republicans know this and are doing all they can to undermine, discount, discredit and back away from the encounter.

They are insisting, as House Minority Leader John Boehner has said, that the only test of the Democrats' seriousness is whether they are willing to "scrap" the health care bills that have already passed and "start over." Pushing their proposals through, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell insisted on "Fox News Sunday," would be "arrogant."

It is, of course, absurd to say that the House and the Senate, having worked for a year to pass quite similar bills, should now give up. But Boehner knows what he's doing: He wants the Democrats to give up on health care because doing so would be the surest way to prove that they lack the guts and competence to govern.

Republicans hate this summit because if it works, it will keep that from happening, and also because it calls many bluffs at once.

Above all, Obama is trying to force Republicans to put their own health-care ideas on the table. On Monday, he's posting his own proposal, which will draw on the bills passed by the Senate and the House. Suddenly, the debate is no longer just about the flaws, real and imagined, in Democratic proposals. It becomes a choice between what the Democrats want to do and what the Republicans want to do. That's a fair fight.

Obama also wants to cut through the shibboleths and cliches of conventional Washington punditry. There is much establishment mourning over the failure of "bipartisanship" and the rise of political "polarization."

Obama is saying: Look -- he always says "look" when he's impatient -- Democrats have already included a lot of Republican suggestions in these health-reform bills, and here they are. What more do you want? If the only way to get Republican votes is for moderate and liberal Democrats to enact conservative Republican ideas, that's not bipartisanship. That's capitulation. Can't you see that?

You want transparency? Let's do this all out in the open. I'll post our plan, you post yours. Everyone can have a look.

No wonder Republican leaders are grumpy.

The summit will call attention to the elephant in the room that the most insipid commentary on the loss of bipartisanship pretends isn't there: There is no bipartisanship because Republicans have become an almost uniformly conservative party.

The GOP opposes -- yes, on principle -- many of the forms of government action that earlier generations of moderate and liberal Republicans were willing to support. The current crop of Republicans would never give as many votes to Medicare as the Republican Party of the 1960s was willing to throw Lyndon Johnson's way.

To say that the one legitimate way to pass bills is to get a lot of Republicans to vote for them is to insist that election results don't matter and that only conservative legislation will ever get through Congress. All the Republicans have to do is be stubborn and yell a lot about being "excluded."

I don't blame the Republicans for any of this. They have a right to be as conservative as they want. They have both substantive and political reasons for blocking health-care reform. So far, the strategy has worked. Why should they do anything differently?

But I do blame those who pretend to be nonpartisan or "objective" for falling for this ploy.

And that's whose bluff Obama is really calling with this summit. He's saying: Please, establishment media, look honestly at what the Republicans are doing. Instead of offering lectures about bipartisanship or nostalgia for some peaceable Washington kingdom, look at the substance of our respective proposals and how they match up against the problems we're trying to solve.

Oh, and there's also this: He's telling Democrats they can get things done, or they can crawl away timidly into the darkness of self-defeat.

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