A summit of empty calories

Dana Milbank
Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Alarge 7-Eleven Slurpee has upward of 550 calories, 142 grams of carbohydrates, and 0 grams of protein.

So it is appropriate that the first meeting between President Obama and Republican leaders since the election would be called the "Slurpee Summit" - a thing of no nutritional value. The name, embraced by Obama, refers to his line during the campaign about how Republicans stood on the sidelines, "sipping Slurpees," while Democrats pushed the economy out of a ditch.

The Slurpee Summit on Tuesday produced precisely what everybody knew it would: nothing but an agreement to keep talking about areas of disagreement. Indeed, the two sides couldn't even agree on logistics for the empty-calorie summit.

First, Republicans requested a postponement of the meeting, which was supposed to have been two weeks ago. Then on Tuesday, the two sides engaged in an elaborate competition for media attention following the 10:30 a.m. meeting.

Republicans made plans to speak to TV cameras in the White House driveway immediately after the session, but then the White House announced that Obama would be making a televised statement at 12:20. Republican leaders, in response, announced a news conference on Capitol Hill for 12:30. Obama then delayed his 12:20 statement, and, before Republicans could complete their news conference, he began his dueling statement - forcing the cable networks to ditch the GOP event.

Not that either side had much to say. "There's a reason why we have Democrats and Republicans," incoming House speaker John Boehner said at his news conference. "We believe in different things."

"We have two parties for a reason," Obama said a few minutes later. "There are real philosophical differences."

For the duration of the lame-duck Congress, it appears that those differences will prevent much of substance from getting done. There's hope for an agreement on funds to keep the government running - temporarily. There's hope for an accord on extending the Bush tax cuts - temporarily. Actions beyond the Band-Aid variety - immigration, energy, tackling the federal deficit - will have to wait.

Writing in Tuesday's Post, Boehner and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell made clear they weren't going to the White House to negotiate. "Republicans heard the voters loud and clear," they wrote, claiming they would be giving Americans "a voice at that table" in the Roosevelt Room.

The problem with that is Americans are essentially asking for Slurpees: In the abstract, they want a balanced budget, but they reject the hard choices needed to get there. The November Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll found that 70 percent of Americans are uncomfortable with cuts to Medicare, Social Security and defense spending, while 59 percent are uncomfortable with increasing taxes. What Americans need aren't lawmakers who satisfy their cravings for empty calories but leaders who convince them to eat the roughage.

Such leadership was not in evidence at the Slurpee Summit. On the eve of the meeting, incoming House majority leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), told Politico that Obama should heed a two-word message from the voters: "Stop it." In case anybody missed that taunt, Cantor's office distributed the article in an e-mail with the subject line "Stop It."

The White House, in turn, did its best to make sure the visiting Republican leaders wouldn't get a chance at the spotlight. Photographers and TV cameras were not admitted to the room for the customary "spray" - a few seconds to shoot photos or roll tape. And the "stakeout" location in the West Wing driveway - the spot where White House visitors address the cameras - was rendered inhospitable by a fleet of backhoes and cement trucks working on a construction project.

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