White House proposes talking it out on TV

Both parties to reach the high ground by trying to extract a public "no" from the other side

Published February 8, 2010 2:09PM (EST)

Since President Obama’s agenda ground to a halt in Congress, everyone’s been popping with theories of how he could get it moving again, particularly on healthcare. He should scrap the basic bill already passed by both houses and restart bipartisan talks, say Republicans, surely in full good faith. Mainstream liberals seem to hold out some hope that the White House can broker the House and the Senate to a tractable middle ground. Politico thinks the president should stop telling people what to do already. And his progressive allies want him to force the GOP to filibuster, and to call them out for their obstruction.

As usual with this administration, the working strategy seems to be to give a little bit to everybody. Obama announced yesterday that he would call for a televised half-day bipartisan meeting at the White House to try to reach a breakthrough on healthcare. Echoing his State of the Union address and his "question time" with the House Republican caucus, the president said, "I want to come back and have a large meeting, Republicans and Democrats, to go through systematically all the best ideas that are out there and move it forward."

It’s not, of course, actually likely that the White House and congressional Democratic majorities are going to hear some revelatory and brilliant new proposal from the GOP -- especially when the Republicans, as a relatively tiny legislative minority, are insisting the president and majority meet their demands. Says Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., "We know there are a number of issues with bipartisan support that we can start with when the 2,700-page bill is put on the shelf."

If the last eight months have shown anything systematically, it’s that there isn’t really any ground on which the parties can meet for compromise. Republicans are uninterested in letting Democrats pass a bill and claim success. McConnell’s point is clearly Republican orthodoxy; House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, tells the New York Times almost exactly the same thing as his Senate counterpart. "The best way to start on real, bipartisan reform would be to scrap those bills and focus on the kind of step-by-step improvements that will lower health care costs and expand access."

For its part, the White House clearly has no intention of scrapping the bill and rebooting negotiations, not after watching Max Baucus and his "Gang of Six" fritter away a half a year in fruitless talks.

Clearly, this televised session idea would be some kind of kabuki theater. What’s happening here is a part of the administration’s ongoing effort to claim the center. The idea is that another on-air, face-to-face encounter will help the president to hold Republicans accountable with the public for abdicating shared responsibility for governing. They’ll be revealed for the do-nothing obstructionists they are.

But you have to think the GOP probably isn’t going to get caught off guard as it did with Obama’s "question time." Republican negotiators won’t just show up unprepared. They’ll do their homework, and they’ll have lots of proposals. You can bet that they will have ideas that sound perfectly good to the layperson but are actually completely infeasible in any compromise, for fairly complicated and wonky reasons. They won't suggest these ideas because they want the president to actually enact them; they'll just try to make him the one saying "no."

Obama and the Democrats want to go on TV to reveal the opposition as uninterested in genuine compromise. But really, it’s not hard to imagine how Republicans maneuver the Democrats into spending this half-day televised session rejecting all of the minority’s ideas. It sounds something like a replay, in miniature and on-air, of the whole painful process so far.


By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

MORE FROM Gabriel Winant

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