“Suppose truth is a woman,” a philosopher wondered. “What then? The direct approach may not be the best approach to win her favor.” I don’t seek relationship advice from Friedrich Nietzche. Watching yesterday's bipartisan health summit, I can see his point.
The aura of artifice and bad faith hung over both sides on that occasion. Republicans accused the President of casting them as stage extras in a Kabuki play designed to corral wayward Democrats in repairing and then passing the Senate bill through reconciliation. I certainly hope that charge is true. Democrats, for their part, argued that Republicans are acting in bad faith. They believe that Republicans decided long ago to delay and obstruct the centerpiece domestic policy initiative of the Obama presidency. I certainly believe this charge is true, too.
Despite the artifice and the posturing, this summit accurately conveyed the central realities of the health reform debate. It exposed the central differences between the two parties. Democrats want to expand activist government to cover 30 million people who will otherwise go uncovered. Republicans don't. Their alternatives would cover only 3 million people; they bluntly refrain from doing more. That difference was apparent in the rhetoric, the human stories, and the casual anecdotes told by Democrats and Republicans around the table.
That event also exposed the human faces of those most central to this debate. A racially tinged conservative meme is circulating that President Obama delivers a great speech, but that he is all sizzle and no steak, a teleprompter slave. Nobody watching yesterday could believe that meme. The contrast in health policy expertise—and, at times, sheer intellect—between the President and his Republican interlocutors was almost embarrassing.
A less-toxic but also misleading meme is circulating among progressives that the President doesn't understand or sympathize with the plight of ordinary working people. That meme was debunked, too.
A reporter called yesterday and asked for my favorite whopping lie told at the bipartisan summit. Some particular untruths were told yesterday about Medicare cuts and the like. Yet there was a refreshing honesty to this public event that is all too rare at this level of American government. It has certainly been rare in this political season of death-panel demagoguery, sound-bite press conferences, and superficial candidate debates whose occasional lapses into adult substantive conversation are regularly thwarted by preening reporters.
Many of us would like to see this nation adapt the institution of Question Time, one of the great features of parliamentary democracy in Great Britain. Yesterday's event provided another argument in our favor.