Why televised negotiations won't get us health reform.

How to fix health policy.
Feb. 8 2010 5:27 PM

The Obama Show

Televised negotiations won't get us health reform.

Click here for a guide to following the health care reform story online.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

During the early 1990s, Slate's founder, Michael Kinsley, was co-host of CNN's Crossfire. The title described the show accurately, and (though a model of civilized debate by today's cable-chat standards) it was criticized for rewarding noisy disagreement for its own sake. A few years later, Kinsley proposed a show called Ceasefire that would be Crossfire's opposite. Instead of locating areas of disagreement between opposing parties, its hosts would cajole warring parties into finding areas of agreement, however fragile. This approach had been shown to work, Kinsley observed, in labor mediation and marital counseling. Why not politics? "For a while," Kinsley e-mailed me, "every time there was a new head of CNN or MSNBC … I would email them with the idea. They would usually write back 'this could be interesting' and then nothing would happen."

Now President Barack Obama is picking up on Kinsley's idea. In a Feb. 7 interview with Katie Couric of CBS News (video, transcript), he said:

I want to consult closely with our Republican colleagues. So, they're gonna be coming into the White House next week. And what I want to do is to ask them to put their ideas on the table. And then after the recess, which will be a few weeks away, I want to come back and have large meeting with Republicans and Democrats to go through, systematically, all the best ideas that are out there and move it forward.

The White House says that this large meeting will take place on Feb. 25 and that it will be televised.

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One reason Ceasefire never made it onto the air, I suspect, is that it's very difficult to get public figures to set aside their differences whenever a television camera is running. Labor mediation and marital counseling do not occur in public settings, and it's hard to imagine they'd be very successful if they did. The late Fred Friendly, former president of CBS News, created a series of televised Socratic dialogues on PBS in which prominent people were challenged to reconcile their clashing views regarding public issues. I haven't seen any of these in a while, but my recollection is that they focused on hypothetical cases, not real ones in which the participants had already invested in public positions. Even then, it was hard to get them to do much more than smile thinly and mumble, "You raise an interesting point."

Maybe Obama thinks the Ceasefire format of his meeting will have a different effect. Maybe he thinks that the GOP's obstruction of a health care reform bill modeled to a great extent on policies it has advanced in the past is so crudely partisan that the harsh glare of klieg lights will shame Republican members of Congress into reclaiming vast acres of common ground. Until fairly recently, national polls consistently found that voters trusted Democrats more than Republicans when it came to reforming the health care system. But Republican members of Congress don't run on a national ticket. They run in states or districts where opposing health care reform tends to be viewed not as obstruction but as prudence or (in some places) as patriotic opposition to creeping socialism. And even nationally, recent polls indicate that when it comes to health care, the public's trust is drifting toward the GOP.

Consider the case of Scott Brown, the new Republican senator from Massachusetts. Way back in July, Sen. Brown—then a mere state senator—gave every indication that he supported health care reform. "They're really mirroring what we did a couple of years ago through Gov. Romney's leadership," he said. Then Ted Kennedy died and somebody persuaded Brown that running against Obamacare might actually pay off. Suddenly, Obamacare bore no resemblance at all to Romneycare. "They're two different programs," Brown told Fox News' Neil Cavuto last month. "What we have here is a free-market enterprise where we're providing insurance in various levels to people in Massachusetts. The plans in Washington are a one-size-fits-all plan." This last assertion, in addition to contradicting Brown's earlier views, is blatantly false. Does that suggest a man capable of being shamed about political opportunism? Political opportunism vanquished Camelot!

Obama must know this. I therefore interpret his decision to host Ceasefire at the White House as another depressing sign that, his public assertions to the contrary, Obama has given up on health care reform. The White House has reportedly failed to provide any legislative guidance to Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill, furthering suspicions that Obama just can't bring himself to dirty his fingernails with the sort of behind-the-scenes politicking necessary to pass major legislation. I'm honestly starting to wonder whether I've given more thought to legislative strategizing than the president has.

This televised meeting will be a lousy forum in which to reach agreement. But it should serve well as occasion for Obama to put his own spin on health reform's demise. That, I fear, is its sole purpose.

Update, 10:15 p.m.: The House GOP is already threatening not to participate. "If the starting point for this meeting is the job-killing bills the American people have already soundly rejected," House Minority Leader John Boehner, R.-Ohio, and Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R.-Va., wrote White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, "Republicans would rightly be reluctant to participate."

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