Wall Street Journal: More Boor Than Cure

Posted on February 26, 2010

Boy, that didn't work.

Nothing in the health-care summit promised greater progress or movement. Positions started out hardened, and likely ended so. Good faith and generosity did not flourish.

Some people said some smart things. The Republicans seemed fortified not with Ovaltine but, in some cases, Espresso. No normal human watching the debate could determine with complete confidence who was being forthcoming about the meaning of this facet of the Senate bill or that subclause in Section D. And so the viewers probably judged things along party lines. "You can't trust politicians." "At least Democrats care."

It's already de rigueur to say no normal humans were watching, but on a snowy day on the Eastern Seaboard, with a maturing population, in a nation of TV watchers, and on a subject that for a year has aroused passions, plenty of normal people would have been watching.

Which is not, I think, good news for the president. Mr. Obama will not have helped himself by his manner. The summit highlighted, even showcased, something unappealing and unhelpful there, a tendency to attempt to show dominance and command by patronizing, even subtly bullying, even trimming. All people in public life have moments like this—most people do, in whatever walk—but you're not supposed to have them when you're trying to sway minds, reach out and build support.

Which left me doubting that was what he was actually trying to do.

The way the meeting was arranged, the president was the teacher, the lecturer. Arrayed before him were the bright if occasionally unruly students. He was keen to establish that it was his meeting—he decides who speaks next and who should wrap up, he decides what is and is not "a legitimate point." He was Mr. President, they were John and Lamar. He wielded a shiny pen like an anchorman eager to show depth and ease. He even said, "There was an imbalance in the opening statements because—I'm the president." Yowza. Grace shows strength, accommodation shows security. This showed—well, not strength. When Rep. Eric Cantor attempted to make a sharp point, the president took the camera off him by calling for his aides and conferring with them as Mr. Cantor spoke.

The president has entered a boorish phase.

This is not a good sign for his program, but tells us something about his likely next step.

The president opened his remarks saying he is concerned about deficits, and then turned to standard, heart-rending anecdotes about the sick and uninsured. If we do nothing, he said, costs will only get worse; moving now is not reckless but prudent. He put the congressmen on the defensive: We in government have the best health care in the world, why can't everyone else? His mother's last days were consumed by arguing with insurance companies.

He cleverly brought up past statements by the Republicans present in which they criticized and called for change in the U.S. health- care system. The past year of debate has descended into "a very ideological battle" in which "Politics wound up . . . trumping common sense." But there's still time to reason together. Let's focus on what we agree on.

One thing about Mr. Obama is that he is in many ways an unusually true-to-form political figure. Nothing forces him off his subject. Opposition doesn't deflect him. He also, as he demonstrated in the 2008 debates, likes to speak long to take the oxygen out of the room, to tire his opponents and leave them having to decide which of his many statements to address first.

After he spoke, the great question was: Would the Republicans come alive? Would they make coherent arguments?

The choice of Sen. Lamar Alexander as the first GOP spokesman was smart. In a folksy, easygoing manner he told the president the American people do not support his bill. We think we have good ideas to reduce health-care costs, he said. He offered a heart-rending anecdote of his own. He said we have to put the current bills on the shelf and start new, "with a clean sheet." He outlined issues of potential agreement.

When Mr. Obama spoke, the Republicans looked at him. When Mr. Alexander spoke, the president watched, stony-faced, and took notes.

Mr. Alexander acknowledged what I've called the Comprehensiveness Blight, the tendency of Congress to put together thousand-page omnibus bills that the public refuses to back because they don't trust Congress not to hide self-serving mischief within them. Mr. Alexander called for smaller, shorter, clearer bills that tackle discrete problems. At this point the president was wearing a face that was no doubt meant to look thoughtful, but actually looked hostile.

It is hard in politics to control the face.

Mr. Alexander ended by asking the president to renounce the idea of banging his bill through the Senate with 51 votes. "It's not appropriate" to rewrite the rules of 17% of the U.S. economy through what is called "reconciliation." Don't go "jamming it through." "Let's start over."

Mr. Alexander was a good GOP spokesman because there is a certain credibility to his bipartisan approach. When I asked him a few days before the summit if Washington was broken, he was keen to speak of working successfully with Democrats on energy and education. "There's plenty of opportunities to get results," he said, and he seemed to mean it.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi was fascinating, though not because of what she said. She has high energy, an air of pleasure in her life, and always looks like a lady, putting in the time and effort it takes for a busy woman to be chic and attractive. She is like someone who walks into politics each day as if she wants to physically adorn it. This I take to be a patriotic act.

Her remarks were dull and witless. Nothing she said was the fruit of fresh thought. She offered cornball, off-point clichés about the kitchen table: "We don't have time to start over!" "I've seen grown men cry." It was a speech that could have been given at a Democratic Party fund-raiser, and no doubt has been. What runs her and keeps her from embarrassment is the lovely, unquestioned conviction that she is right and that's that. There are politicians whose strengths come from their limits. Her limit is that she cannot, ever, see truth on the other side. The steel of her certitude becomes her strength. It allows her to squash opponents legislatively like little bugs.

It was interesting that while Sen. Alexander spoke to the room and not the cameras, she spoke to the cameras and not the room.

Which seemed to say it all.

The whole point of the summit, I believe, was for the Democrats to win whatever support remains for the bill they will attempt to ram home in the Congress, and for the Republicans to prove they are not the party of "no" but a party of serious ideas and intentions. 

It was a talking-point festival. Nobody moved the needle. The Democrats emoted, making appeals to the sentiment. The Republicans analyzed, sometimes indignantly, but their statements often seemed disconnected, as if their plans lack a framework that coheres.

At odds with his party's health-care style was the president, who has the certitude but not the passions of an ideologue.

What the meeting made clear is what the Democrats are going to do—not step back and save the moderates of their party but attempt to bully a bill through the Congress.

This is boorish of them, and they'll suffer for it.