Sunday, February 28, 2010
guilt group \: Maybe you feel a twinge of guilt about having missed President Obama’s health care forum on Thursday. Maybe you wonder if you should have called in sick, stocked up on popcorn, printed out a few Congressional Budget Office reports and tuned in for six hours to do your civic duty.
Let me put your mind at ease. Not since Sarah Palin’s ill-starred interview with Katie Couric has a political event so perfectly anticipated a “Saturday Night Live” satire.
The president himself set the tone of self-parody. Some of Mr. Obama’s critics have suggested that he can be a wee bit pedantic, a touch too professorial. Now they have six hours of videotape to back them up. Forthe president , this was less a conversation than a seminar: He lectured and interrupted (“Let me just finish, Lamar”), started debates and then cut them off, ruled his opponents’ arguments out of order and always gave himself the final word.
His Republican opponents, meanwhile, were out to disprove the notion that they have no ideas on health care reform. Not so, America, not so! They have two ideas, malpractice reform and interstate purchasing, which they clung to all day like Al Gore with his lockbox. Also, they had several piled-high copies of the lengthy Senate health care bill, and a slogan to go with them: “Let’s start over from a clean sheet of paper.” What would end up on that paper? Why, malpractice reform and interstate purchasing, of course!
Then there were the Congressional Democrats. So often stereotyped as a group of ineffective bleeding hearts, for whom every political debate is a chance to relive the civil rights era, they more than lived up to that cliché. There were rambling remarks from Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, health care sob stories from everyone else, and, courtesy of Tom Harkin of Iowa, an extended analogy between high-risk insurance pools and racial segregation.
No comedy-sketch atmosphere would be complete, of course, without a dose of Joe Biden’s logorrhea: “I think it requires a little bit of humility,” he ruminated at one point, “to be able to know what the American people think, and I don’t. I can’t. I can’t swear I do. I know what I think. I think I know what they think, but I’m not sure what they think.”
Nor am I, Mr. Vice President. But here’s what they should think, based on Thursday’s forum: The Democrats have a health care plan that may turn out very, very badly, and the Republicans, for all their protestations, don’t really have a plan at all.
The first five hours proved the first point. Even with Professor Obama keeping a firm rein on the proceedings, the Republicans (especially Jon Kyl of Arizona, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Dave Camp of Michigan, all exceptions to the self-parodic norm) were able to demonstrate that you don’t need to mention “death panels” to critiquehealth care reform . You can talk about the bill’s budgetary gimmickry, the burdens of its mandates and the risks involved in having Washington set prices, define benefits and (eventually) limit care.
In the last hour, though, President Obama finally invited the Republicans to offer their own ideas — beyond, yes, tort reform and interstate purchasing — for covering the uninsured. And the Grand Old Party’s representatives lapsed swiftly into platitudes and filibustering.
This wasn’t amusing; it was shameful. Ideas for expanding coverage not only exist on the political right, they’ve also been championed by politicians who were sitting at that table — by John McCain in the last presidential campaign; by Lamar Alexander and Chuck Grassley, past co-sponsors of the Wyden-Bennett bill; by Representative Ryan and Tom Coburn in this year’s Patients’ Choice Act. But the Republicans have clearly decided to offer nothing, absolutely nothing, that could be construed as changing the existing system by more than an iota.
As the forum wound down, the participants complimented one another on having such a respectful and substantive conversation. (“Never have so many members of the House and Senate behaved so well for so long before so many television cameras,” Joe Barton of Texas remarked.) Afterward, some commentators acted as though our elected representatives were to be congratulated just for talking publicly about policy without falling on their faces.
No congratulations are in order. The forum exemplified why Americans have every reason to hate Washington right now. The first five hours revealed a majority party whose health care bill probably deserves to be defeated. But the sixth one exposed a minority party that deserves to lose as well.