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There's something new under the sun

I've been racking my brain all morning, but I really can't come up with another example of a president gambling major legislation on a televised, hyped showdown with the leadership of the minority party. Congressional Democrats have been begging Obama to involve himself more directly, but this is the most aggressive presidential intervention into an ongoing legislative debate that I can remember. Can anyone think of anything even slightly comparable, or is this the opening of an entirely new playbook?

By Ezra Klein  |  February 8, 2010; 1:30 PM ET
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Nope. Every one else that I can remember tried "leadership."

Posted by: cpurick | February 8, 2010 1:38 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, I think you're missing two pieces here:

1) If the event is run correctly, it will be more of a discussion than a showdown. There will inevitably be moments when there are conflicts of opinion. But, when the president says "bring your ideas", what that means is that he's planning to try to find consensus and that he's trying to make Republicans take some ownership.

2) You have to see this event not just in the context of health care reform, but in the larger context of the Obama presidency. I think the administration has realized that the major hazard of single-party rule is the perception that the voices of 40% of Americans are not being heard. This is a bid not just to pass a health care bill, but to make the government work between now and November, and perhaps beyond November too.

I'd also like to throw it out there that it's incredible to me that the same people who favor talking to Iran don't favor talking to Republicans. It says a lot about how little we seem to trust our political adversaries.

Posted by: jeffwacker | February 8, 2010 1:44 PM | Report abuse

It is easy to see how the Rs win this -- they just keep saying, "Ditch the bill and start over with us anew, and all will be great!" And the Ds will be portrayed by the corporate media as the ones unwilling to work with the good-faith Rs.

Obama's Baltimore Question Time went to his head. The Rs are ready this time -- they won't debate policy, they'll just seek to win the PR game.

Posted by: AZProgressive | February 8, 2010 1:51 PM | Report abuse

"Nope. Every one else that I can remember tried 'leadership.'"

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Posted by: slag | February 8, 2010 2:08 PM | Report abuse

I can think of a non-legislative parallel, which may not at first glance perceived to be flattering.

On November 4, 1979, an angry mob of young Islamic revolutionaries overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking more than sixty Americans hostage. The event received significant media attention, even giving rise to the Nightline series of telecasts. Then-President Carter and then-candidate Reagan argued response to the matter publicly, with the true opposition (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, now President of Iran) ultimately (and seemingly of his own volition) releasing the hostages seconds after an electorally defeated Carter handed power over to his successor Reagan. Certainly, Carter didn't want the hostages to be taken and probably did not want the media attention: both were thrust upon him by opponents who believed the hostage-taking and media frenzy to be good strategy. Obama, Pelosi, and their supporters are, in contrast, purposely holding the legislation hostage and are purposely seeking media attention, playing the roles of Carter's opponents, Ahmadinejad and Reagan. Carter -- the player who did the morally right thing -- lost, while those who used less noble techniques succeeded, with their success bringing us a powerful new opponent in the form of a repressive state having the stated aim of killing us all.

I wish Carter had won.

Posted by: rmgregory | February 8, 2010 2:11 PM | Report abuse

After the success Obama had humiliating the Republicants on TV at their retreat, he wants to do it again. And he will probably be addressing a bunch of empty chairs where scared Republicants would be sitting.

Posted by: ottoparts | February 8, 2010 2:11 PM | Report abuse

I disagree with most commenters here.

If you have an honest dialog, it's hard to throw a lot of bs/hypocrisy in the mix without being called out for it.

Unless they can think of some theatrics to bring to the meeting, this is not a good idea for Republicans to participate. It really isn't.

It may be showmanship, blah, blah, but in the end, politics is all about perception, and you can't have your Republican leadership in a room full of cameras and have the President of the US call you out on your BS/Hypocrisy.

Headline: "President Obama calls on Hoyer to stop the BS and acknowledge HCR has large amount of republican ideas incorporated into it" OR "In meeting with Prez, Republicans cannot come up with a single policy idea to add to HRC that isn't already into it, other than to kill Medicare".

If nothing else, it should be interesting. I'll bring my popcorn.

Posted by: JERiv | February 8, 2010 2:17 PM | Report abuse

Yep Obama holding a summit that's destined to fail is an unique gambit. Most people want victories to build on, not defeats.

Posted by: endaround | February 8, 2010 2:20 PM | Report abuse

Ezra and other commentators have been beating the drum for months that Americans like the bill's specifics, but they have been misinformed/lied to about the bill as a whole. So what better chance to educate America as to what's in the bill than to talk about it openly, in an anticipated forum. It's exactly what you've wanted all along.

Posted by: Quant | February 8, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

Maybe if this became tradition for any major legislation, we might get a more involved public, and some decent policy discourse between the parties.

Not a bad way to get people interested in solving problems instead of just riding the endless wave of 24 hour news soundbites.

You shouldn't be able to deep-six legislation by calling it a "government takeover" or telling people they're going to take away their rights... at least not without explaining why.

Maybe this'll provide a structure for politicians to get back to arguing stuff on its merits.

You can always hope, anyway.

Posted by: itstrue | February 8, 2010 2:28 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, it looks like a new playbook.

Harry Truman railed publicly against the "do-nothing Congress," and it worked very successfully.

Those were whistle stops, not televised. But we're in a situation where a major conduit of opposition propaganda is a broadcast network, while some of the best tactics and strategizing is coming from bloggers. It's a newly different world.

The Republicans must appear at the event. If they don't, then they aren't meeting the President half-way: and then, many voters, particularly the independents, will be very annoyed.

Or, the White House can invite the Republicans who spoke to Obama at the House conference: Pence, Ryan, Chaffetz, Blackburn, Price, Roskam, Hensarling. What politician can resist the lure of national camera face-time and becoming a party star?

Not only are these politicians unlikely to resist, you could also start to drive a wedge between them and their leadership. It could get interesting.

Now of course, the Republicans may show up, to say, "Ditch the bill and start over with us anew, and all will be great!"

But the President's next questions are, "What should be in the new bill? How do you cover everybody? How will you bring costs down? What is in this present bill that is so objectionable?"

The answers to any and all of these questions lead the discussion right back to the integrated structure of the present healthcare reform bill. It's not perfect -- but there are reasons for nearly everything, and those reasons are logical and inescapable. the discussion has been going on at least since Truman.

And during the summit, quite possibly another question may form, in even more viewers' minds: "Why isn't there a public option in it?"

Truman, by the way, was in favor of a "public option." See here:

Posted by: Lee_A_Arnold | February 8, 2010 2:31 PM | Report abuse

To answer your question, the closest analog I can think of is the Gore-Perot NAFTA debate. A VP isn't quite the same as a Prez, I will grant you, but that one was an administration home run.

Posted by: wagster | February 8, 2010 2:42 PM | Report abuse

It seems to me this whole thing is an attempt by Obama and the Democrats to get themselves some cover for their eventual total failure to enact any health care reform. The Senate Republicans are not going to participate in giving Obama & Co a big success. This will allow the Democrats to go into the election saying "we tried". It's not likely to do them much good, but it seems clear that that's the idea. I'd like to be wrong.

Posted by: thehersch | February 8, 2010 2:56 PM | Report abuse

slag wins.

Posted by: andrewlong | February 8, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

I'm cautiously optimistic because:
1)it's a game changer--something fresh
2)Obama did a dry run with the Repub breakfast and it went well
3)Dems need to counteract the Repub lies about HCR--this is a pretty good way to get attention and help people to understand the legislation and its opponents better
4)slag hates it

Posted by: cnic | February 8, 2010 3:26 PM | Report abuse

wagster beat me to it, but the closest analogue I could think of was the Gore-Perot NAFTA debate on Larry King. Granted, it was the VP, not the Prez. And Perot wasn't representing the Republican Party. But as a public forum in which the administration directly confronts the opposition to a major piece of domestic legislation, that's the best example I could think of.

Posted by: Isa8686 | February 8, 2010 3:29 PM | Report abuse

yeah... I've made the Perot-Gore NAFTA amalogy before. If you believe in a policy, than a high profile public policy debate/forum/summit is the best way to swing public opinion behind you.

Posted by: Quant | February 8, 2010 3:47 PM | Report abuse

I think the purpose of this summit beyond getting Republicans on the record, is to force the wavering Democratic congresscritters' skins into the healthcre bill. Their excuse since the MA election was to claim that there is no public support for the bill, so the would prefer to let the bill die a quiet death. The Prez. is making a public clarion call to make it impossible for them NOT to act one way or the other.

He wants Democratic congresscritters to decide on the record whether they will act on a core component of the Democratic platform or not. Then let the voters decide one way or the other.

Posted by: zizi1 | February 8, 2010 4:54 PM | Report abuse

This may actually be the beginning of something new because both sides may see it as a win. The President (and Dems) expect to demonstrate that their plan is the only realistic way to go and that the GOP has no plan that would actually solve the problem. Since this is true, they will probably succeed and pass their plan in the end. The GOP will tell their base that they stood firm to the president and that he was unwilling to work with them, which they will believe, because that is what it means to be the base, and it is what their base already thinks. The President hopes to convince people who are not partisans that he has reached out to the GOP, which he should be able to do, because (1) he has and (2) there really are some formerly GOP acceptable ideas in the bill, while showing that they really are not interested in reaching back. The GOP also hopes to convince those who are not partisans of the contrary, and since the GOP, in its delusion, actually thinks that the President isnt reaching out to them because he isnt deferring to their ideas, they think that they will benefit. Besides helping to pass health reform, it may also be a step in the process of getting Dem voters to realize where the GOP is coming from and getting those Dem voters motivated for November. I believe that the GOP, and the punditocracy, may be surprised by the actual results this November, now that the President appears to be emerging from Rahmism.

Posted by: gregspolitics | February 8, 2010 5:26 PM | Report abuse

Somehow I doubt this will be a game changer. Republicans certainly will do their best to ensure people tune out. I suspect that most of their base already has. Those inclined to like HCR as offered by the Dems will tune in and applaud. What's changed?

Posted by: janinsanfran | February 8, 2010 8:30 PM | Report abuse

What about Gore vs. Perot on NAFTA? Not the same but of a kind, perhaps.

Posted by: Michael66 | February 9, 2010 11:13 AM | Report abuse

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