Jonathan Chait

Risks Of The Health Care Confab

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Jonathan Cohn, a.k.a Jonathan Not Me, a.k.a. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, has been saying for a while the the Obama administration needs to take the lead in forcing the Senate and House to compromise on health care legislation. Today, he notes, they appear to be doing that.

So let's pull back for a moment and consider what this health care summit might accomplish. As I see it, the meeting has two purposes. The first is to answer some of the public concerns about process by showing that the plans result from a rational, deliberative process. Obama plans to lay out his goals -- all of which the public shares -- and make the case for why his plans achieve them, and the Republican plans don't.

Secondly, he wants to expose Republican obstructionism. This aspect entails a mutual kabuki dance. Republicans want to kill Obama's plan. They might be willing to pass a very meager alternative proposal, but substantively they're not willing to take on any of the major problems in the health care system, and politically they don't want Obama to sign anything that would appear to be a major victory. They correctly understand that a major health care defeat would expose Congress as dysfunctional, rip apart the Democratic base, kill Obama's poll numbers, and clear the way for them to take control of Congress.

Obama, in turn, wants to show that partisanship is the Republicans' fault, not his. But this, in turn, requires him to engage in the charade of pretending not to understand what the Republicans are trying to do. The public still wants the two parties to work together on a comprehensive health care bill. Both parties understand that this won't happen, and will be angling to stick each other with the blame. Obama is going to focus on substance: See, the Republicans oppose any ideas that could make a serious dent in the problems of cost and affordability. Republicans are going to focus on process: See, the Democrats have cooked up their own deal behind closed doors.

The risk for Democrats is that the news media is far more receptive to stories about process than stories about substance. Obama wants to story coming out of this event to be that he bested the GOP in a policy debate. But the story may end up being that Obama ignored the Republican promise to work together and relied on a Democrats-only plan.

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