22 February 2010

Of bipartisan summits

The president's call for a bipartisan summit on health care reform is nothing more than a penultimate effort -- the only one left after this would be reconciliation -- to save his dying health care bill.

More importantly, what hypocrisy. What utter hypocrisy.

Barack Obama should be held to the lofty standards he set with his rhetoric. Campaigning as a trans-partisan populist, he promised to change the ways of Washington, assailing the Bush and Clinton presidencies as exercises in old-time politics unfit for the 21st century. He successfully (and dishonestly) painted John McCain as representative of this old guard.

Obama had a chance to really, meaningfully change Washington. He entered office with a stratospheric approval rating. Even die-hard McCainiacs like myself gave him the benefit of the doubt and anxiously wondered if he could put his money where his mouth had been for 18 months.

He slammed through a $787 billion stimulus package that the Congressional Budget Office said would do more harm than good long-term -- ignoring a package about half that size that would have garnered between 70-80 votes in the Senate and probably 300+ in the House. On health care, this man who campaigned so vociferously against "the politics of fear" of the Bush White House utilized the same scare tactics he accused his predecessor of using. Everything was about an inexplicable, arbitrary deadline imposed by Obama himself (Harry Reid proclaimed, we must get this done by Christmas!) -- not because of the time-sensitive nature of health care legislation, but because the president knew he had blown much of his political capital on the stimulus.

James Baker was on Fareed Zakaria's show yesterday, and he said it best: Obama's biggest mistake was shutting Republicans out from the beginning. Now, as we have noted here before, the president wants to offer Republicans the chance to support Democratic proposals on live television.

If he intended to ram through a left-wing agenda from day one, fine -- then campaign as a liberal. Obama is only a bipartisan deal-maker when he is forced to be -- while running for president, and now after the Democrats lost their supermajority in the Senate. After promising a new way forward, he has alienated the opposition party quicker than any president I have ever studied -- it took Bush a full two and a half years to become as unpopular as Obama now is.

Why did he initially shut the Republicans out? Because he was told he could.

Now, he has attempted to convene this ridiculous health care summit, which is little more than a dog-and-pony show. His idea of bipartisanship is to televise a "debate" where Republicans are allowed to vote on the already existing Democratic proposal. By refusing to tear up the 2,700-page legislation and start anew, Obama has tilted the playing field. Why should Republicans participate? They have been shut out from the beginning. They know that if they display even a modicum of pushback, Obama will accuse them of "playing politics," of putting their political ambitions before the good of the country, and all the familiar nonsense that he has peddled so far. Instead of forging compromises with Republican policy wonks like Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor, the White House chose to cut backroom deals with labor unions. Change, indeed.

A note to Democrats: Your agenda is unpopular. This is the reason that conservatives campaign as conservatives and liberals campaign as moderates.

Republicans -- for as devoid of ideas as Mitch McConnell might be -- owe Obama nothing. This playing field has been badly tilted from the start by a man desperate for anything to salvage his sinking presidency. It's too little, too late.

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